Part public service, part exploitation, MGM’s series of “Crime Does Not Pay” two-reelers entertained cinema-goers from 1935 to 1947, serving up punchy little cautionary tales about people who break the law—either because they’re criminals by trade, victims of circumstance, or just negligent. Warner Archive’s six-disc Crime Does Not Pay set contains all 50 of the series’ shorts, from “Buried Loot,” in which the feds arrange a prison break so that they can track one con’s attempt to recover his stolen cash, to “The Luckiest Guy In The World,” in which a young man plots to fake his own death and then discovers—whoops!—that he’s worth more alive. Some of these shorts are taut procedurals, revealing how the dogged heroes of law enforcement chase down every clue and trip up crafty crooks. Others are designed to inform viewers about common scams, to offer helpful safety tips, or to function as dark sketches of desperation. All are compact models of classic Hollywood storytelling, using veteran character actors to imbue stock types with personality, and then grinding those types through the plot-twist mill to an inevitably bleak fate.
The “Crime Does Not Pay” series spanned two distinct but connected B-movie eras: the age of the gangster picture, and the age of film noir. The tone of the series shifts some over the course of more than a decade, becoming less slam-bang and more moody; and the early shorts especially suffer from some unfortunate racial stereotyping. But the series as a whole is consistently enjoyable, because of the diversity of its subject matter—which ranges from an exposé of fiends who prey on unwed mothers to a plea to the public not to plug nickels into illegal slot machines—and because of the directness of its storytelling. These shorts are in the same vein as ’40s true-crime comics and the various incarnations of Jack Webb’s Dragnet: They’re simple morality plays with a veneer of docu-realism. And they appeal to the viewers’ sense of justice, too. It’s not enough for the bad guys to be caught due to their own lack of thoroughness; they have to be humiliated too, to emphasize the series’ main point. Crime? Not so lucrative.
Key features: A bonus short that wasn’t part of the original series.