Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
Written by John Wexley and Warren Duff
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Recently, American conservatives voiced faux outrage over a relatively tame Super Bowl Halftime performance. Their reasoning was that elderly rappers with criminal records were the focus and encouraged moral decline. While race clearly played a part in the current blast of hot air from the right, moral outrage has existed in America since its founding. You can always count on some subgroup of people in the United States to find something to clutch their pearls over and blame it for “juvenile delinquency.” In the 1930s, gangsters were one of these cultural touchstones. For some, the criminals were seen as folk heroes fighting against the banks & powerful, while for others, they were harbingers of chaos bringing destruction to innocent lives in their wake.
In 1920, Rocky Sullivan and his pal Jerry attempt to rob a railroad car carrying fountain pens. Jerry manages to escape when the police show up, but Rocky is taken into custody. This begins a cycle of Rocky going in and out of prison for various crimes. As an adult, Rocky (James Cagney) takes a plea deal after being accused of murder. His lawyer Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) promises he will sit on the $100k Rocky has hidden away, and he can have it when he gets out in three years. Time passes, and Rocky returns to the old neighborhood discovering Jerry (Pat O’Brien) has become a Catholic priest. Rocky gets help renting a place and visits Frazier only to find out he can’t get to the money but gives the ex-con $500 with the promise the rest will come soon. Rocky is pickpocketed by a group of young toughs with who he becomes amused, eventually deciding to take them under his wing. Jerry sees this as a threat to the children’s souls and conflicts with his childhood friend. Meanwhile, Rocky is becoming convinced that Frazier is lying to him, and he will need to take action to get his money back.
Angels With Dirty Faces doesn’t quite hold the moral gravitas it may have upon its initial release, but it is a charming and fascinating product of its era. It’s also a showcase for James Cagney, who became a cultural stereotype despite being talented. He initially balked at working for the studio because he could see Warner Bros wanted to short him on the box office returns. But, after playing hardball, Cagney returned with the rights to the book Angels With Dirty Faces. His performance in the film is inspired by two people. The first was a strung-out pimp he would observe in Yorkville that would repeat “Whadda ya hear! Whadda ya say!” a phrase associated with the actor. Cagney also drew from his childhood friend Peter Hessling, convicted of murder & executed eleven years prior.
The one wrinkle that makes this such an odd picture is the inclusion of The Dead End Kids. These young New York-based actors made a big impression after playing similar delinquent youths in the Broadway play Dead End. Instead of getting more acting jobs as individuals, they were sold as a unit and ended up in multiple films, eventually evolving into The Bowery Boys, the main characters of a series of comedy films. They pair well with Cagney’s general tough-guy attitude, but I don’t think they help with the film’s larger emotional arc. They are clearly young men, not boys, so having other grown men doting over them plays incredibly oddly.
Movies like this are done very differently in contemporary cinema, with liberal moral issues bent as melodrama. It’s the 1930s equivalent to something like The Blindside or Green Book, pushed by the studio as a form of indulgence to make amends for other movies they put out that might be morally objectionable. Angels is an infinitely more exciting movie because Cagney’s performance and some directorial choices by Curtiz elevate it just that little bit. Unfortunately, O’Brien is another element, like The Dead End Kids, that brings the picture down. He’s nowhere near as good as Cagney, so when they play off of each other in a scene, the audience’s attention is drawn to one far more than the other.
The one part of the film that I think bumps it above the other gangster fare being churned out the time is its remarkable ending. Rocky has been arrested for premeditated murder and is going to the chair. Jerry implores him to beg for forgiveness and show cowardice for the express purpose that the story will leak; it will cause the youth in the neighborhood not to follow Rocky’s example. Rocky responds there’s absolutely no way he would do it, yet moments later, as he’s being strapped into the chair, we hear and see (via his silhouette) that he is expressing regret and crying out for help before the switch is flipped. Cagney has stated that he played it, and the scene was a shot in a way that leaves ambiguity around the whole moment. Is he playacting because he cares about these kids’ futures, or is it
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