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Film / They Made Me a Criminal

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Phelan arrives and ruins everything.

They Made Me a Criminal is a 1939 film starring John Garfield and Claude Rains.

Garfield plays Johnnie Bradfield, a rather sleazy champion boxer who projects an air of all-American wholesomeness while actually enjoying liquor and women. When Johnnie's rather unsavory habits are about to be exposed by a reporter, Johnnie's manager Doc confronts the reporter, and accidentally kills him. The manager and Johnnie's girlfriend Goldie then frame Johnnie for murder—and are promptly killed in a car wreck.

Left with no other alternative Johnnie goes on the lam. He drifts all the way to Arizona, where he finds refuge at the Rafferty farm, a date farm that also serves as a reformatory for delinquent teens. Inspired by the kids, Johnnie turns over a new leaf. But his past, in the form of Detective Monty Phelan (Rains), can't be escaped that easily.

One of the more dramatic cases of Creator's Oddball on record, as this hard-bitten crime drama was directed by none other than Busby Berkeley, better known as the director and choreographer of elaborate, fantastical musical numbers in musical comedies like 42nd Street and Footlight Parade. Apparently Warner Bros. gave him the gig to keep him at the studio; if so it failed, as Berkeley left for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer right after completing this film.

Max Steiner composed the score. A pre-stardom Ann Sheridan has a small part as Goldie, Johnnie's faithless girlfriend.

Not to be confused with the British Film Noir, They Made Me a Fugitive.


  • Adaptational Heroism: In the earlier film The Life of Jimmy Dolan, Jimmy actually does kill the reporter, although it's by accident: Jimmy punches the reporter, who falls down, his head slamming on the spiked grates of a fireplace. This film was made after The Hays Code was enforced so criminals getting off the hook in any way was not allowed. Therefore it's the manager, Doc, who kills the reporter and lets Johnny take the rap.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Phelan's comment in the opening sequence about how you can always recognize a man by the way he stands.
  • Delinquents: The various young teens from New York City, guilty of crimes like robbery and vandalism, sent out to Arizona to get put back on the straight and narrow. (They're played by the Dead End Kids.)
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Just to make sure there's no way Johnnie can prove his innocence, Doc and Goldie are killed in a car wreck shortly after the murder.
  • Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: News that Johnnie is wanted for murder hits the newspapers within hours.
  • Foreshadowing: "You'd take my watch, my roll, and my girl if you thought you could get away with it," says Johnnie to Doc. That's exactly what Doc does.
  • Grievous Bottley Harm: Averted. Doc crashes a bottle over Charlie the reporter's head, and it kills him.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: The investigation into the death of the reporter is called a "murder quiz".
  • I Am Not Left-Handed: Johnnie, who is left-handed, is fighting righty, and taking a beatdown. Finally Phelan tells him not to bother, Phelan knows who he is anyway. Johnnie then switches hands and gives a better accounting of himself.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Doc drives his car into a tree and it bursts into dramatic flames.
  • Let Off by the Detective: After seeing how much of a difference he's made and seeing how much the kids and his girlfriend love him, Phelan lets Johnnie go. Particularly generous in this example as it means Phelan will go back to New York empty-handed and suffer embarrassment in front of his colleagues, and will be stuck in the morgue.
  • The Magic Poker Equation: The delinquents rope a spoiled rich kid into a game of poker. The rich kid, who knows nothing about poker, draws a straight. When they trick him into thinking a straight is a bad hand, he draws four more cards, and draws a straight flush.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Claude Rains as usual, speaking in his mellifluous London accent, playing a cynical New York cop. Apparently Rains felt he was miscast and Warner Brothers had to threaten him with a suspension to get him to play the part.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Two, as Phelan's train chugs away while Johnnie walks off with one of the delinquents.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Phelan has been stuck on morgue duty, after it turns out a guy he arrested who was eventually executed turns out to be innocent.
  • Saving the Orphanage: The kids of the Rafferty farm have an idea to start a gas station on the farm, which will provide enough cash to keep the farm afloat. But they need seed money to build the gas pump, which is where Johnnie's boxing skills come in.
  • Travel Montage: A short one traces Johnnie's route from New York to Arizona, staying in flophouses, as a line appears on a map.
  • Willfully Weak: Johnnie knows that Phelan is looking for a left-handed boxer with a distinctive stance. So Johnnie elects to box right-handed. He was a champion in his previous life but he takes a beating fighting righty.