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James Cagney
Remind Me
Picture Snatcher

The Picture Snatcher

Tabloid reporters never get any respect and why should they? They're pushy, duplicitous and willing to do most anything to dig up front page dirt for their rubbernecking readers. Picture Snatcher (1933), a lively assembly line programmer from Warner Brothers, isn't likely to change your opinion of them either but it's hard not to admire the resourcefulness and sheer chutzpah of James Cagney as ace reporter Danny Kean. A recent parolee from Sing Sing prison, Kean reinvents himself as a reporter/photographer at a struggling New York City tabloid. He soon becomes top dog after getting an exclusive story on a grief-stricken fireman whose own house burned down with his wife inside. As his fame spreads, Kean begins pursuing college student Patricia Nolan (Patricia Ellis), the daughter of the cop that sent him to prison. But their relationship hits a bad patch when Kean's most controversial photograph - a shot of a murderess being electrocuted - results in the firing of Patricia's father (he was in charge of security at the prison). Can Kean right the wrong he has done? You betcha.

Completed in fifteen days by director Lloyd Bacon, Picture Snatcher has a breakneck pace that is perfectly in keeping with its subject and marked the first time Bacon and Cagney worked together; they would make eight more pictures together including Footlight Parade (1933). According to the actor in his autobiography Cagney on Cagney, Lloyd's directing methods were expedient to say the least. After running through his lines with co-star Ralph Bellamy for one scene, Cagney "heard Lloyd yell, "Cut - print it!" I said, "Hey, you - I was rehearsing!" "It looked fine from here," he said. That was the ultimate efficiency - shooting a damned rehearsal!"

The major inspiration for Picture Snatcher was the shocking image of convicted murderess Ruth Snyder being executed at Sing Sing on January 12th, 1928; The New York Daily News immortalized Tom Howard's photograph the following day. In the film's major set piece, Cagney smuggles his camera into prison, hidden in his pant's leg at the ankle, and snaps the floor level shot at the moment the switch is thrown. While this scene is a close imitation of the actual execution (you can see the original photograph in New York Noir: Crime Photos from the Daily News Archive (Rizzoli) by William Hannigan), no reference is made to Ruth Snyder or the actual case in the film.

As for Cagney's screen reputation for playing rough with the ladies, it's in full bloom here as he receives a slap from Alice White (cast as Allison, the chief editor's mistress) and retaliates with a knuckle sandwich. During the filming of the scene, Cagney carefully coached the actress on how to fake it for the camera but when it came time to shoot it, White accidentally leaned forward slightly and took the punch full force. Cagney recalled, "And there was poor little Alice down on the floor, crying her heart out. I was mighty sorry to have hit that cute little kisser."

The situation was reversed, however, when it came time for Bacon to shoot a slugfest between Cagney and Bellamy. In his autobiography, When the Smoke Hit the Fan, Bellamy revealed, "I was to hit him in the jaw. In rehearsal I threw a fist across his face in a close shot over my shoulder, just showing the back of my head and his full face. Jim has done quite a bit of boxing. He said, "Aim at my chin right here." And he pointed to the left side of his chin. "Don't worry," he continued. "I'll ride the punch. I'll be out of your way. You won't touch me!" We did a take. I aimed at his chin, hit the side of his face and broke a tooth." Cagney later wrote, "You have yet to see a more disconsolate man than Ralph Bellamy that day. "I told you I've never thrown any punches," he said, "I've never hit anybody in my life." "You sure as hell have now," I told him, "so don't worry about it." "I'll never do it again," he said and as far as I know he never has."

Producer: Raymond Griffith
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Daniel Ahern (story), William Keighley, Ben Markson, Allen Rivkin, P.J. Wolfson
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Film Editing: William Holmes
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Music: Cliff Hess
Cast: James Cagney (Danny Kean), Ralph Bellamy (McLean), Patricia Ellis (Patricia Nolan), Alice White (Allison), Ralf Harolde (Jerry), Robert Emmett O'Connor (Casey Nolan).
BW-77m. Closed captioning.

by Jeff Stafford



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