They Made Me a Criminal
(Catch my previous film noir essay here: Hangmen Also Die)
The director Busby Berkeley isn’t typically a name that film buffs associate with film noir. No, Berkeley is known first and foremost as a choreographer of musicals who merely dabbled in directing, and to little great effect. Through the early 1930s, he began the greatest period of his work in the medium of musicals and musical comedy’s when, in 1933, he choreographed dance sequences for 42nd Street. He followed up this triumph with work on Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Dames, Fashions of 1934, direction on Gold Diggers of 1935, and later more choreography on Gold Diggers of 1937 and Gold Diggers of Paris (the whole Gold Digger theme was, needless to say, in vogue through the 1930s). It was a time when people, who could afford to, went to the movies as a distraction from the tortures of daily existence and didn’t expect of their entertainments any heady artistic themes or social pictures that could remind them of the impoverishment of the era immediately following The Great Depression.
However, in 1939, general sentiments had changed and the musical form had largely gone the way of the dinosaur, relegated to the fringes as a new form of film began to take precedence in the cultural imagination. A darker film that bore the imprint of German expressionism visually and dealt with the themes of paranoia and nihilism creeping into the general culture ala World War II, ala so-called civilized Christian nations going at it in total warfare. Film noir. Not called such a thing at the time, the films were thrillers, spy films, war films, boxing films, and films of the Underground at odds with the world around it. Both reactions against and defenses of the greater culture. The films would only later be grouped under the heading of noir, but at the time the look and the elements of the form took shape unconsciously and Berkeley was not immune.
They Made Me a Criminal was a remake of a 1933 film entitled The Life of Jimmy Dolan and directed by Archie Mayo (known for his direction of the the proto-noir The Petrified Forest three years later), which was seemingly popular enough to guide the studio system to commission a remake just six short years later. In the 1939 film, Jimmy Dolan has become Johnny Bradfield (played authentically by the great predecessor of Method Acting, John Garfield), a boxer who has just won an important bout and become the Light-Heavyweight World Champion. Bradfield has cultivated a public mask in which he is seen as a good-natured, homegrown type who loves his mother and respects the rules of the game. In reality, he is something of a conman who cheats constantly using eye-gouges and low-blows, which go unnoticed in part through his ability to lead the eye of opponents and referees alike and in part through expectations about Johnny as his public persona. One night, an undercover reporter catches wind of this information and threatens to publish it in the morning paper the following day. Johnny, sauced, takes a shot at the man and misses. But just as the reporter begins to exit the door, Johnny’s manager clubs the man with a bottle, which leads to a brain hemorrhage and quick death.
The manager plans to pin the murder on Johnny, steals his watch, his money, his girl, and drops Johnny off at his home before riding off into the night. But an A.P.B. is put out on the car as soon as the reporter’s body is found dead in the apartment, and when a duo of police cruisers catch up to the Manager and Johnny’s gal, they make a break for it, and eventually run off of the road, hit a tree, and go up in flames. This turn of events leaves the bodies burnt beyond all recognition, but with the manager wearing Johnny’s watch, the corpse of the Manager is taken for the corpse of Johnny, and the case is closed. Johnny takes the opportunity to run away after recouping what little bit of his money he can from a safe deposit box, and to start a new life for himself in an effort to avoid being convicted for murder of the reporter (despite the fact that Johnny is a southpaw and forensics has concluded that the attack was landed by an orthodox, meaning Johnny would probably have little trouble proving his innocence, with a good lawyer that is).
Johnny runs off and eventually ends up on a Date farm in Arizona where, emaciated and weakened by his long travels atop and inside train cars, as well as by foot, he is taken in by a sympathetic group in the widow Goldie West, Grandma Rafferty, and a group of delinquents from New York (played by the actor troupe known as the Dead End Kids) hired out to improve their characters and keep them out of trouble in the Big Apple now so far away. Things seem idyllic and simple, and Johnny makes a good go of country life, but the farm is under dire financial straits. So, when a travelling Boxer exhibition comes through advertising that anyone who can go more than two rounds with ‘The Wild Bull of Europe,’ Gaspar Rutchek, will receive $500 per round, Bradfield decides to put back on the old gloves and battle it out for the fiscal well-being of his young friends, and the new love of his life, in the hopes that they will be able to buy a gas pump with the money and start raking in dough through their unique geographical situation (placed along a long road with no gas station for 42 miles in one direction and 28 in the other).
But one of the Dead End Kids make a decisive mistake in taking a photo of Johnny during boxing practice, having the film developed, sending it in to a local magazine competition for photography, and winning. The success results in a three dollar prize and the picture’s publication in the zine, which is picked up a New York Detective, one Monty Phelan (Claude Rains) who knows Johnny Bradfield personally and has never believed the claim that the man in the scorched car was Johnny. He begins to track down Johnny, and the two men are set for a confrontation that may end in more violence or in Johnny’s incarceration, but either way in disruption of Johnny’s current predicament and peace of mind.
The film is shot to great effect by cinematographer James Wong Howe (whose achievements I have previously discussed in more detail in my previous film noir essay on Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die), the master of darkness, and one of film noir’s greatest camera operators. The film is taut and paranoiac, but simultaneously vibrant and filled with life, love, adventure, and humor. It’s a shame that Berkeley didn’t direct dozens of film noirs in his time as I believe he had an instinctive knack for it and would have had similar success in future endeavors. However, I’m just glad we’ve got this one, a film noir that combines the thematic staples of the genre with the only sport I really like, one I’ve developed a real love for over the past six months: the Sweet Science of Boxing!
[Film Noir Essays Concluded here: D.O.A.]