Monday, September 12, 2005

They Made Me a Criminal (1939)

The Siren didn't realize this when she posted it, but her great picture of John Garfield was from a movie she saw last week, They Made Me a Criminal. This 1939 Warner Brothers feature is a pleasure, showing Garfield's charisma and talent in full flower.

In some ways it's an odd movie, with a beginning that suggests film noir. But check the date; it's 1939, no postwar anomie here. What starts out a dark tale of a man who loses everything over a crime he didn't commit turns rapidly into a story of a heel who finds redemption. Garfield plays boxer Jimmy Dolan, who wins the world title as the movie opens in the first of several great fight scenes. Turner Classic Movies suggests director Busby Berkley's experience filming dancers gave him an advantage in filming the boxing moves. The Siren believes, but can't prove, that genius cinematographer James Wong Howe
had more to do with it than the director, especially if you look at the fight scenes Howe shot for 1947's Body and Soul.

As reporters gather around him after the fight, Jimmy expounds on the virtues of clean living, teetotaling and remembering his dear old mom. Next thing you know, he's blotto and lolling around on a couch with Miss Oomph herself, Ann Sheridan, as they both laugh it up over fooling the press corps. Sheridan, whose rising star gave her high billing for a tiny part, wears a black satin dress held up only by attitude and what appears to be black dental floss. You figure half the reason Garfield invited her was to see how long those straps could stand the strain. It's a great scene, with Garfield balancing lovable scamp and dangerous drunk. Unfortunately for his character, Ann's dress is still going strong when an uninvited guest turns out to be a reporter, dead keen to expose Jimmy as a hard-partying hypocrite.

Jimmy punches the guy, then passes out. His crooked manager coshes the reporter in the noggin with a whiskey bottle. Ever see a movie bar fight where someone gets hit over the head with a bottle, and think to yourself, "My word, how can that man still move?" Well, here the bottle kills the guy. The Siren can't decide if that is more realistic, or goes too far in the other direction. Perhaps the reporter had an undiagnosed aneurysm.

The crooked manager persuades Sheridan to escape with him. They load Garfield in the back of a car, drive him out to the country, dump him in a cottage and vamoose. (Here the Siren ponders how empty cottages are as abundant in movies as well-located parking spaces.) But fate catches up with the pair, in the form of a fiery car wreck that leaves them not only dead, but unidentifiable. The world assumes Jimmy killed the reporter. But one cop (Claude Rains) doesn't believe Jimmy is dead. He's determined to bring in the boxer.

Rains' greatest strength--that deep, liquid-caramel voice--renders him ridiculous here, because someone had the bright idea of casting him as a tough New Yorker. Rains fought against having to take this role, but Warners threatened to suspend him and he gave up. He wanders through the movie, pursuing John Garfield and looking about as comfortable as a soaking wet cat. There are times when he seems to have the physicality of the cop right, but then he opens his mouth and it's curtains.

Back to Jimmy. His savings stolen by a crooked lawyer, he becomes a hobo. Here we leave proto-noir-land and are back firmly in the Depression, with a great sequence of Garfield hopping boxcars and getting chased by the railway detectives. (Judging by the way railway detectives are shown in 1930s movies, people must have hated them even more than bankers. Remember Sullivan's Travels?) Finally Jimmy fetches up on a work farm, where the Dead End Kids are serving out juvenile sentences. They're supervised by Kid Billy Halop's sister (Gloria Dickson, pretty good here, but just six years away from her horrible death). What's a boxer to do but straighten out these crazy kids? And how could a sister not love him for it?

I am always happy to see the Dead End Kids, emblematic of the wisecracking, classic New York I love. TCM says they got along well with Garfield, and it shows, with zing in the comic scenes and lightness in the sentimental ones. One great sequence has Garfield and the Kids using an irrigation tank as a swimming hole, with near-disastrous results. Underwater shots of the boys' flailing legs build the suspense. Whether this was Howe's touch, or Berkley's, it's marvelous.

Still more pleasures are to be had from this movie, including an end that didn't quite play as the Siren expected. It is widely available as a budget DVD, and doesn't look bad at all. The Siren recommends it.


Trog said...
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Exiled in NJ said...

Your reviews bring up so many other subjects ripe for plucking. Hollywood's picture of railroad detectives, and other heavies of the day invites comparison to what is done in film today. Often muscle in old movies were former pugs, boxers, grown a bit flabby. Most couldn't catch their shadow if they had to run, and most folded like meringue with a punch to the stomach. Think of the blackmailer in Postman Rings Twice, or the muscle Eddie Mars brings against Marlowe in Big Sleep. One thing for sure, none were scary, at least to the modern viewer.

About 1968 we began to see more realistic muscle: the hit men in Bullitt, Polanski himself in Chinatown.....but in today's films, muscle is prettier and more violent, but just as paper maiche.

Thanks once again for another insightful review.

The Siren said...

Well, I love your comments, because you always point out more things for me to think about! You are so right about the "muscle", and the railroad muscle in "Criminal" is a prime example. He doesn't actually catch Garfield, but comes close enough to force him to jump off the train. I do think that the scene where Joel McCrea gets coshed in "Sullivan's Travels" is genuinely frightening, but if I recall, Sullivan is weakened by hunger and fatigue when he's caught. In prime shape he could have gotten away.

Peter Nellhaus said...

It's been over thirty years since I saw this on TV. I vaguely remember Huntz Hall singing! Berkley had a sense of humor goofing on one of his Gold Diggers songs.

surly hack said...

In Robert Alrich's Emporer Of The North (which is based on a Jack London story)Ernest Borgnine plays Shack, one the most brutal and memorable railway guards in film.

Alex said...


What do you think criminals of that time actually looked like?

Take a look at pictures of mobsters and criminals of the time - Clyde Barrow was considered star material because he looked so much better than the average criminal. A lot of criminals were, in fact, ex-boxers. That's what you look like when you're an ex-boxer who's now spending a whole lot of time in the back room of an Italian restaurant.

Don't be confused about lethality and appearance. It's a lot more important that you've been fighting in the streets all your life than you have big biceps. Remember that violence was simply a lot more common then - in bars, in war, in the street in front of the polling place, in jails, getting beat up by your father and beating up your spouse and so on. People were a lot more accustomed to violence then (at least, poor whites were a lot more accustomed to it). Most of the men had been in the army and knew how to handle weapons.

We would laugh at most criminals' appearance earlier in our history - that is, until they had a knife in our guts in mid-chortle.

The Siren said...

Surly - if you take a look at the James Wong Howe article, you'll find a tiny, but very nice, factoid about our guy Mr. Cagney.

Alex: And now you are reminding me of my favorite canceled TV show of all time, "Frank's Place". It's been many moons, of course; one episode there's an unofficial match being set up, between an ex-boxer and a neighborhood tough. One restaurant worker is refusing to bet. "Know what the difference between a tough guy and a professional fighter is?" The other worker shakes his head. "One punch," says the first, grimly.

I have no trouble believing that fight expertise would stay with you in life. But Exiled has a point, that the heros often outrun or dispatch their flabby opponents with suspicious ease before, say, 1950.

surly hack said...

American movies are notorious for fights with guys who punch each other over and over in the face, with no apparent brain damage(apparently blocking a punch was never taught in hero school). In real life it's more often one and done. I think this awareness of the phony movie fight is why the nastier fights and violence that started in the 40s in noir and crime films seemed so bracing, until it too turned into yet another cliche. It's the difference between the fighting in The Quiet Man and Blood On The Moon. Obviously the first is a comedy, but though extended to absurdity, the fighting is only slightly broader than the average Wayne western.

Exiled in NJ said...

Alex: my apology for not being clearer; I wasn't implying that Hollywood waan't accurate in old films. And you are absolutely correct; if I were near them I would be frightened and looked for the fastest was out of there.

Moose Malloy in Murder My Sweet is almost a perfect embodiment of 40's muscle though he works only for himself. Marlowe learns this and tries to keep him pacified, or keeps away from him, which is what any smart man would do.

The frightening Savage Brothers, Jimmy Markum's honchos in Mystic River, show what can be done today, but too often what we get is a pair of sunglasses, a raspy voice and a lot of attitude.

Alex said...


Yeah, I see your point now. Of course, the plots called for the hero to win, not to get his brains beat out (except for the notable Murder, My Sweet as you mentioned)

On the other hand, a lot of the stars back then were some pretty fearsome guys themselves. Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Jack Palance, Kirk Douglas, Ernest Borgnine and a lot of others were all tough hombres and war vets who could lay down a fierce beating if they had to. In fact, Palance was an ex-boxer and Douglas an ex-wrestler. Ryan and Charles McGraw had had careers as stevedores.

surly hack said...

Robert Ryan was also a boxer.