NOTE: This review is part of the John Garfield 100th birthday blogathon. To read all the other wonderful entries in the event, go HERE.
At a victory party following a fight, boxing champion Johnny Bradfield (Garfield) drinks to excess and finds himself involved in an altercation with a newspaper reporter. After slugging the man, Johnny---completely drunk---passes out.
With Johnny out cold, his manager proceeds to get into it with the reporter, dealing a blow which leads to the man's death. Anxious to cover his tracks, the manager---along with Johnny's girlfriend, Goldie (Ann Sheridan)---leaves the scene, knowing that the crime will then be pinned on Bradfield. The two of them end up being killed in a fiery car crash, and because the man was wearing Johnny's watch, his body is identified as that of Johnny. However, police detective Phalen (Claude Rains), who is out to prove himself to the higher-ups, is quite sure Johnny is still alive, and he has every intention of finding him and charging him with murder.
When the real Johnny comes to and reads the newspaper account of what has happened, he has no choice but to go on the run. After being warned to not use his fists lest he give himself away, Johnny takes on the name Jack Dorney and heads West. Hopping freighters, as well as pounding the pavement with his feet, Johnny/Jack makes his way to Arizona, where he finds a welcome at a ranch for troubled boys.
The teenage boys (played by The Dead End Kids) have been sent by a New York priest to his sister's (May Robson) farm, where it is expected that kindness, responsibility, and hard work will rehabilitate them. Johnny/Jack is put to work, and although his influence on the boys is initially a matter of concern, he eventually proves himself. In fact, it's not long before the "look out for yourself" man wants to help the farm reverse its dismal finances. When he sees an advertisement for an amateur fight, Johnny is willing to enter the ring for the prize money---despite the fact that he is a "wanted man" and really needs to keep a low profile.
Does Johnny go through with the fight? Or, realizing the danger of being so visible, does he back out? Does Detective Phalen, who has seen Johnny's picture in the paper, find him and take him back to New York to face a murder rap? These are the questions which play out in the balance of this film.
Although listed on Mr. Garfield's filmography as his second film, They Made Me a Criminal, technically, is his third. Blackwell's Island, the true second film to be made, was released a couple months after this one. With Garfield's debut performance in Four Daughters the previous year touting him as "the sensational new "find"---not of the year, but of the decade," Warner Brothers knew they had a mega-star on their hands; wanting to capitalize on that popularity while Four Daughters was fresh in the minds of audiences, they rushed They Made Me a Criminal ahead of the B-grade Blackwell's Island. While Garfield had been billed seventh in Four Daughters, he was given name-above-the-title status in this film.
They Made Me a Criminal is a perfect vehicle for the talents of John Garfield. He completely excelled in roles like this, and he was his usual wonderful self here. The misunderstood, huge-chip-on-the-shoulder rebels are easily my favorite kinds of roles for Mr. Garfield. Quite honestly, I love him like this!! The Dead End Kids, who are normally so obnoxiously disrespectful that I can hardly stand them, were definitely more tolerable in this film. Even Leo Gorcey wasn't as smart-alecked as usual. According to Mr. Garfield's biography, Body and Soul, The Story of John Garfield, he enjoyed working with the Dead End Kids.
As for Claude Rains' portrayal of a New York detective---he felt he was dreadfully miscast for the role and begged to be let out of it. Interestingly, however, Mr. Garfield felt that Rains "contributed the strongest performance" to the film. Garfield was critical of his own performance---finding it "hollow"---and he would "deprecate the picture at every opportunity in later years." Funny, I thought he was quite good in the role...maybe not his best performance, but certainly solid and very believable.
May Robson is completely delightful...especially in the fight scene. What a fun grandma-type she is. I love her spunky spirit!
This film is out on DVD, plus it is available in its entirety on YouTube, so you shouldn't have a problem being able to view it. It's a solid, 3-star film...close to 3.5 stars. I think it's a film all Garfield fans will want to see.
NOTE: All directly quoted material is obtained from Body and Soul: The Story of John Garfield, by Larry Swindell, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1975)