Picture Snatcher (1933)

Picture Snatcher (1933) is a pre-code proto-noir ex-con-goes-straight journalism and media drama come farce starring James Cagney, Ralph Bellamy, Patricia Ellis and Ralf Harrolde.

The movie runs to many things in its farcical and dramatic and comic qualities, and this includes being a portrait of contemporary big-city journalism, in which various metropolitan dailies and evening papers would compete hard to scoop each other. 

In a cinematic take on a tabloid journalist sneaking a camera into the Ruth Snyder execution in 1928, James Cagney does the same and a chaotic chase follows. The electrocution of housewife Ruth Snyder at Sing Sing on the evening of January 12, 1928, for the March 1927 murder of her husband was made famous when news photographer Tom Howard, working for the New York Daily News, smuggled a hidden camera into the death chamber and photographed her in the electric chair as the current was turned on. 

The photograph was a front-page sensation the following morning, and remains one of the most famous newspaper photographs of the era.

Splish-Splash — James Cagney in pre-code Picture Snatcher (1933)

To get to the stage in the drama at which Cagney is able to take the snap he has had to carry out a series of foul machinations, including lying to the warden of Sing Sing, abuse the trust of his girlfriend’s father, lock a fellow reporter up in a bathroom, steal his credentials, lie to every other colleague he has and strap a tiny camera to his leg.

James Cagney plays Danny, who is released from Sing Sing after three years. His gang picks him up, but he soon tells them he’s out and that he is going legit. He argues throughout that he is never going back to prison, and as this is not film noir ― we can maybe believe him.

Newsdesk in Picture Snatcher (1933)

Chuckling and casual, James Cagney as Danny actually does some despicable stuff In Picture Snatcher. There's a part commentary on the press ― suggestive of the possibility that a criminal would make a good news reporter.

In this is a seed of film noir ― a charismatic character who is in fact a snake and cheater when he feels the need. Simply put, the lurid and exploitative is aspects of life are used to make money.

Picture Snatcher (1933)

And there's the canonically common anti-heroical notion that in film noir, bad people can be most appealing. A sense of morality does emerge in Cagney's character which is beautiful, although it takes a lot ― alcoholism and stressful relationships included.

James Cagney became a star playing a gangster in Public Enemy, but there was a significant and ongoing public complaint about the glamorisation of gangsters, and the Production Code was going to see to this.

Accordingly, Warner Bros. looked for other jobs for Cagney characters ― boxer, taxi driver, G-Man, and here ― tabloid photographer.

The Code is inextricably linked to the birth of noir, and if anything, the thirty year stretch of movies from 1930 to 1960 is the story of how cinema freed itself from social and moral constraint. The darkness and depths of the classic film noir period are the deep crucible where these issues were developed, allowing film production to tackle darker and more evil subject matter, even birthing the horror film after 1960, the door being flung open by Psycho (1960).

James Cagney and Alice White — the patriarchal era of sexism in pre-code Picture Snatcher (1933)

The Pre-Code atmosphere is fairly prevalent in Picture Snatcher (1933). Some lines of dialogue that would have by 1934 onwards likely have been excised include:

“Some men start by holding hands. Some tell me that they love me. I’ve got too much vitality for that! And you’ve got vitality too….”

“I’m too much woman for any one man!”

“I’m going to put on some silk so good that you can see right through it.”

Danny also slaps a woman unconscious near the end and snaps a garter on a lady's leg at one point too ― suggestive and violent ― there is plenty of this careless attitude, pre-code and socially normative, more is the pity.

Ralph Bellamy in Picture Snatcher (1933)

Danny is happy-go-lucky, very much the mood of the 1930s as he zips from exploit to drama in a series of quick fire adventures, many of which revolve around womanising with the wrong woman. The womanising is undoubtedly most pre-Noir in its character ―fun and zany ― for the men ―  light hearted and not precisely psychological, as if the purpose of the film is to instil a curious kind of character building in sexual relations.

On more than one occasion Danny has to duck around the office as he is sought by an outraged police lieutenant whose daughter he has dated, and a miserable fireman whose house has burned down that he has he fooled into giving him a scoop.

Ralph Bellamy ― best known to cineastes of a certain age perhaps as Randolph Duke in Trading Places (1981) ― is a great buss as well as a consummate prohibition era drunk. 

James Cagney in Picture Snatcher (1933)

The sense of fun could best by summarised by the word caper, which would seem to sum up most of the action in Picture Snatcher, which is not a drama and not a comedy, but which flits between the two 

If it were film noir, this ex-con story would only switch one way, and it's an interesting concept indeed to the noir landscape that someone would succeed in this endeavour. The film noir ex-con does not indulge in capers or whimsies.

The era of hot type in pre-code Picture Snatcher (1933)

Throughout, the girls all want Danny, from top to toe and start to finish, and there's nothing he can do but fight them off. Was it ever truly like this, in patriarchal paradise?

James Cagney as Danny is rambunctious to say the least, as the epitome of the mile-a-minute talker suited to making it in urban life in the USA of the 1930s. The film is funny and rough-edged and has Pre-Code qualities dotted throughout, largely in the category of the sexually suggestive. 

Voyeurism — male gaze and the context of male desire in pre-code Picture Snatcher (1933) 

The acting style is a lifetime away from that of White Heat (1949), only fifteen years in the future. Into the span of that 15 years comes film noir however, psychologically emerging from material that is in the case of Picture Snatcher, attempting too many things at once, in the style of its day, ever appearing to fall back on farce.

Film noir imagery in proto-noir Picture Snatcher (1933)

The acting is lightweight, and almost flimsy with the whimsy at times, and includes a language of chucks under the chin and flamboyant hand gestures, hat tips and dance-like body swerves and grabs. 

As a bonus of course in Picture Snatcher we've an early riff on the theme of the voyeur made visible, first with the miniature camera that becomes the tool of Danny's trade and the technological marvel that allows him ― with the addition of his own bravado and ingenuity ― to quickly rise to the top of his profession as a cheap newspaper man.

Death Row brought to life in pre-code Picture Snatcher (1933)

The camera of course photographs women in states of undress, as readily as it captures the moment of a man's execution ― a serious taboo that causes an almighty ruckus and becomes the moral quandary of the later part of the film.

It gets to you in the end James Cagney in pre-code Picture Snatcher (1933)

The camera also captures the dying moment of a violent criminal at the dramatic climax, demonstrating the purity of sex, violence and death as themes deserving of constant capture. Ultimately the mix is a great formula for the many different types of ambiguous heroes that emerge through the noir cycle with elements of the vigilante, the detective-journalist and the antagonist with a foot on both sides of the law. 

Both sides of the legal divide — James Cagney in proto-noir Picture Snatcher (1933)

Picture Snatcher (1933) at Wikipedia

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