Tuesday, September 18, 2012

They Made Me a Criminal

I've mentioned the film They Made Me a Criminal, on several occasions, but I don't think I've ever done a full-length post on the film. It's airing tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM as part of a day of films starring John Garfield, so now is finally a good time for that full-length post.

Garfield plays Johnny, a boxer living in New York City who is fairly successful, but also living a bit of a lie. He talks about his devotion to his mother, but he doesn't really have a mother and likes to party with the ladies, especially girlfriend Ann Sheridan. A reporter discovers this and when he threatens to write a scathing exposé on Johnny, Johnny's manager hits the reporter over the head with a liquor bottle: Johnny by this time is too drunk to know what's going on. Johnny's manager isn't such a good guy; not only having committed murder, he robs Johnny by taking Johnny's watch. But since this movie was made under the Production Code, we know he's going to get it, which he and Sheridan do when the car the manager is driving crashes, burning both of them to a crisp. Because the manager has Johnny's watch, the police naturally assume Johnny's dead.

All of this is obviously a problem for Johnny. Even worse for him is that, when he goes to his lawyer for some legal advice, the lawyer swindles Johnny out of his life savings. Johnny is reduced to becoming a hobo, trying to make his way across the country doing menial labor. Eventually he winds up on a fruit farm run by tough Granny (May Robson), working it with the young lady Peggy (Gloria Dickson) and several ragamuffins, one of whom is Peggy's kid brother (these young men are played by the Dead End Kids). Granny and Peggy are kind of suspicious of Johnny, but the relationship between all of them seems to work reasonably well. There are things Johnny can do that the women can't, and he needs a place to stay. Besudes, he's kind of falling for Peggy.

Ah, but you know this can't last. New York Police Detective Phelan (Claude Rains) is on the case, certain that it wasn't Johnny who died in the car crash. And he is determined to get to the bottom of what really happened. Eventually, their paths are going to cross: one of the Dead End Kids gets the bright idea that the farm could bring in more money if they had a working service station, but they need the captial for it. Johnny could get the capital by taking part in a boxing promotion, but that would bring him publicity which he doesn't want. You know too that Det. Phelan is going to find out about any such boxing match....

They Made Me a Criminal is one of John Garfield's earliest movies, and you can see already how good he is at playing men who have had tough lives, or who are generally tough, without getting to the level of nastiness that Lee Marvin would portray in the 1950s. This role fits him like a hand in a glove, as clichéd as that may sound. Claude Rains, on the other hand, has a role that in theory doesn't fit him: there's no way somebody so elegantly British should be a New York police detective. Yet Rains takes what he's given and gives a very entertaining performance. (Then again, he'd already had experience with being a thoroughly-miscast American in They Won't Forget.) May Robson is as tough-as-nails but endearing as she wan all her old lady roles. The Dead End Kids also add value, as they're not overused. It was still some time before they'd be given a movie series of their own, where their low-brow humor and dumb scripts could doom a B movie. They get one particularly good scene when they and Johnny decide to go for an illicit swim in a water tank, only for the farmer who owns the tank to turn on the tap, causing the water slowly to drain from the tank and threatening to strand them.

They Made Me a Criminal has gotten a DVD release, and not an expensive release from the Warner Archive collection.

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