Picture Snatcher Review

If James Cagney pulls the trigger of a camera instead of a gun, is it still a gangster movie? Picture Snatcher has Cagney reformed as Danny Kean, just released from a stint in Sing Sing and ready to give up the gangster life. His motivations are sketchy, but moral qualms about a life of crime seem to be less worrisome than the prospect of ending up back behind bars. Inspired by a prison correspondence with habitually drunk newspaper editor J.R. McLean, played by Ralph Bellamy, Danny goes looking for a big time reporting job. He instead gets to play tabloid picture snatcher. It's 1933, but the precursors to paparazzi are already equated with gangster journalism.

To be sure, Picture Snatcher is a comedy and Cagney is never less than charming, as only he could be. This was during the actor's movie star prime after hitting it big with The Public Enemy two years earlier. Warner Bros. utilised their contract player to great and exhausting effect, having him appear in over thirty prominent parts just in the 1930's. These amounted to roughly half of Cagney's total film roles over the course of his career and it's not surprising that many of these pictures coast along largely on his impish persona. Picture Snatcher falls nicely in this vicinity, with a vintage Cagney performance and uniform competence everywhere else.

With 75 years of hindsight, the most intriguing aspect of the movie is easily the decision to place tabloid journalism as just a (legal) notch above gangsterism. The paper Cagney's character lands at is a rag of yellow sensationalism and his deviously underhanded methods fit in perfectly. A potentially touching scene of a gun-wielding fireman whose wife and her lover burned up in his home gets squashed in favour of Cagney's missing scruples. An injection of one-liners ("goodies," as the commentary quotes the actor's preferred term) and Bugs Bunny-like misdirection allow for things to resist heavy handedness. This is Cagney in likable wise guy mode. He gets the laughs, the girl(s), and the picture.

The studio tweaking of a basic gangster opening and character into the story of a legitimate, if barely any less morally corrupt, tough guy works ever so slightly because the two concepts are thematically almost identical. When Cagney uses the fireman's photograph or shoots a pair of nearly expired subjects with his camera, death and trouble result. The character's reputation-making shot of a female death row inmate in the electric chair, based on an actual incident, comes amidst typically sombre behaviour from everyone except our intrepid photojournalist. When the former criminal meets up again with his old cohort for a destructively violent climax, each man has his weapon of choice, but only Cagney ends up successful in using his. The idea that these two "professions" are not dissimilar only goes so far, but it's nonetheless a good subject that ends up well-explored.

Less accomplished are the stodgy character development and awkward shifts in plot. Director Lloyd Bacon and his stable of writers use their pre-Code freedom to depict alcoholism, adultery, and a very forward-thinking female, but there's a definite lack of fluidity here. The Cagney character's dual romances with blonde co-worker Allison (Alice White) and policeman's daughter Patricia (a distractingly young and nondescript Patricia Ellis), one of which begs the question whether ping-pong is ever really just ping-pong, seem to lean the wrong way. Meanwhile, the tone is light with a twinge of social consciousness that sort of gets thrown to the wind. Bellamy's character sneaks liquor in a self-fashioned paper glass on the job, but it's not played for comedy or, effectively, in a serious manner. Ultimately, Picture Snatcher is little more than a fairly entertaining Cagney vehicle with an interesting concept and, as such, it works well enough for fans of the actor. Maybe a little less so for those looking for some gangster in their DVD players.

The Disc

Picture Snatcher is encoded for regions 1, 2, 3, and 4, transferred progressively on a (just barely) dual-layered disc, and presented in the 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. It is released both individually and as part of the Warner Bros. Gangsters Collection Vol. 3 (with Vol. 2 being newly retitled from its original incarnation as the Tough Guys set).

With beautiful cover art, Picture Snatcher comes to DVD in an impressive transfer. The improvement from the video quality on 1931's Smart Money is obvious despite that film being only two years older. Grain is present, but mostly kept to a minimum and damage is almost non-existent. Mild speckles of dirt can be seen at times, but this is largely a very clean, natural-looking picture with reasonably strong detail. I did see what appears to be some noticeable haloing, especially when Alice White steals a light from Cagney's car.

The only audio option is a single-channel English Dolby Digital mono track. A faint hiss can be heard, but the sound is generally up to reasonable standards. Dialogue is easily understood and volume levels are fine. Subtitles in English for the hearing impaired and French are optional and white in colour.

A commentary by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta is filled with lulls and, despite their professional and prepared demeanor, adds little to the film. I'll repeat again that mostly unremarkable star vehicles from the early 1930's, even ones lasting just 77 minutes, don't really need full-length commentary tracks. The two gentlemen here come across as enthusiastic and well-meaning, but much of their effort consists of very basic and obvious information. The track sort of seems like a couple of guys who read a book, did a little research, and talk intermittently throughout the film. Those with lower standards or a higher tolerance might find it more enjoyable than I did.

The Warner Night at the Movies bits highlight short subjects from 1933. A trailer for I Loved a Woman (2:51), starring a sideburned Edward G. Robinson, and a vintage newsreel about the capture of real-life gangster "Machine Gun" Kelly (0:54) get things started. They're followed by the Vitaphone short "Plane Crazy" (19:33), an early aviation musical comedy starring Dorothy Lee, and Rudolf Ising's "Wake Up the Gypsy in Me" (7:25). The Merrie Melodies cartoon was co-animated by Friz Freleng and has some classic moments involving a group of fun-loving Russian gypsies who merrily dance around while singing the title song. A character identified as "'The Mad Monk' Rice Puddin'" is an obvious stand-in for Rasputin, but looks more like Gandhi by the short's end. It should also be noted that this is the 1995 dubbed version done for Turner Entertainment. Trailers for Picture Snatcher (1:03) and its loose remake Escape from Crime (1:36) can be found on the disc, as well.

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