Proof That It’s Pre-Code:
- “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.”
- Besides those gems, we’ve also got Cagney slapping any woman who gets too fresh and snapping some garters if they’re not quite fresh enough.
- Oh, and children getting shot at. Little twerps!
Don’t fuck with James Cagney. Even though the man is dead and in the ground, every picture you see him in rekindles a base fear. He’s a bundle of unceasing energy that can’t rest, willing to punch and trick his way through any situation. God help you if that smirk vanishes off his face, too.
In Picture Snatcher, he can barely stand still. A hoodlum just out of prison, he’s taken to a friend’s offer to become a photographer for the city’s tabloid. Though he’s bid his thieving ways adieu, he now finds himself gleefully taking tasks that even the other tabloid staffers find grotesque.
His first assignment involves stealing the picture of a woman and her husband off of their bedroom wall. The twist there is that the husband was a firefighter whose house caught on fire one day with the wife in it… as well as her lover. The chuckling casualness that Cagney eats up these moments are only the edge of the depths of his depravity. He gloats as he fools the husband into letting him get away with the picture for the paper’s front page, promising a big insurance check to the shell shocked man.
Cagney’s eyes light up as he fools this man, only stopping to feel bad for a moment or two before moving on. The film is fascinating in this way, as it slowly lets us see his sense of morality bloom, like a flower from a trough of mud.
Of course, this happens where women are concerned as well. His first fling in this film is with a woman named Alice.
She’s a smooth talking girl who picks Cagney up like it was nothing. He sees through her quick enough, though, since she’s also seeing his friend and editor Ralph Bellamy. Alice is okay with two timing him, since Bellamy’s a Prohibition Era drunk– which is somehow sadder than it should be.
Cagney eventually meets the right girl but comes to a crossroads in his professional life: his boss at the tabloid offers $1,000 for a picture of a woman being executed that night. Unable to shake his baser urges to be the top dog, Cagney sets a plan in motion that eventually nets him a picture of the moment of death.
It’s a gruesome moment, made great by Cagney’s skill. Happy to be on the other side of the bars, he’s all smiles as the somber newsmen make their way into the execution room. He’s cracking jokes up until he sees the woman strapped in, when his face turns serious. With the most contemplative look he’s managed in the entire film, you can read the doubts crossing his mind. Mind you, to get to this point, he’s had to lie to the warden, abuse the trust of his girlfriend’s father, lock another reporter up in a bathroom, steal his credentials, and strap a tiny camera to his leg.
The lever goes down and he clicks his camera. For all of the doubt on his face, it wasn’t enough. Destroying all that he had may be tough, but his pride was far more important.
As the other journalists present catch on to what he’s done, a chase ensues. Publishing of that ugly photo is an insult to the institution of journalism, which is, quaintly, what this film is somewhat about. What does it mean to be a journalist? To fight fair or fight dirty? The competition between what you should publish and what you must publish has always been a fascinating subject, and the centerpiece of Picture Snatcher is Cagney’s increasingly ambivalence towards answering that question. Since getting that picture was winning the bet and scooping his rivals, it was the correct thing to do, right?
The film’s idea seems to be is that a good newspaper man cares about the people he writes about than his own reputation. Cagney learns this the hard way.
But all of this talk about ethics brings up a pretty funny irony; for a film about the using the lurid to make money, man, Picture Snatcher is lurid. All of the enterprises that Cagney embarks on are shown with a unrepentant glee. We are even treated to seeing the grotesque picture of the execution that Cagney risked so much for– it isn’t very pretty.
The world of Picture Snatcher is one we still exist in, making the film seem fresh and vital no matter how dead the newspaper format is. Everyone is trying to make a name for themselves, everyone’s willing to push the line until it vanishes. At the end of the day, who watches the watchers but themselves?