Released: November 24, 1938
Director: Michael Curtiz; Screenplay: Rowland Brown, John Wexley, Warren Duff, Ben Hecht (uncredited), Charles MacArthur (uncredited); Cinematography: Sol Polito; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producer: Samuel Bischoff
Cast: James Cagney (Rocky Sullivan), Pat O’Brien (Jerry Connolly), Humphrey Bogart (James Frazier), Ann Sheridan (Laury Ferguson), George Bancroft (Mac Keefer), Dead End Kids
- "Let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could."
As two boys busting into a freight car are spotted and surrounded by police officers, they decide to a make a run for it. Jumping out, they take off running, diving under nearby other railcars and avoiding oncoming trains. Nearing a fence, they are but a leap away from escape… but only one of them makes it over. Jerry, the quicker of the two, manages to avoid capture and is never tied to the attempted robbery. He goes on to become a priest and leader in his Lower East Side community. Meanwhile, his best friend Rocky is tight-lipped and takes the rap for both of them. He is shipped off to a boys’ reformatory, where instead of being rehabilitated he becomes schooled in the finer points of the underworld. Rocky goes on to pursue a career in crime, working his way up to being a leading racketeer in the city and building up bootlegging and gambling rackets in between several stints in prison.
And so begins this dramatic tale demonstrating the very fine line between sinner and saint. It’s a gangster film that examines why such characters exist. Are these criminals born or are they created? If the results had been reversed, would Rocky Sullivan have become a priest while Father Connolly shuffled in and out of jail? Not only is that question posed to the audience, but it also seems to weigh heavily on the consciences of the characters.
The story begins in earnest after Rocky emerges from a three-year bid for a crime committed with his lawyer James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart). Rocky agrees to keep his mouth shut and do his time, but extracts an assurance from Frazier that the $100,000 he earned shortly before his arrest will be waiting for him when he gets out. Once out of jail, Rocky returns to his old neighborhood and begins reestablishing connections with former pals. He stops at the church to see Jerry (Pat O’Brien) and reminisce about their days as young punks on the street. After taking a room at a local boardinghouse, Rocky runs into a neighborhood girl that he has used to pick on when they were kids. Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan) is leery at first, but slowly begins to warm up to him.
Along the way Rocky becomes the key influence over a gang of young hoodlums played by the Dead End Kids. This group of incorrigible teenagers is much like Rocky and Jerry were in their youth, terrorizing the neighborhood and committing petty crimes. Father Connolly tries desperately to reach out to them, creating a recreation center to keep them off the streets. But he is no match for the charm of his old friend. Rocky Sullivan is a legend in their neighborhood and the kids idolize him. Rocky is accommodating to Jerry, encouraging the kids to participate in things like the Father’s afternoon basketball games.
In spite of this loyalty he displays toward Father Jerry, Rocky clearly revels in the adoration of the boys. He regales the gang with stories of his own childhood and uses them as couriers in situations when he has too much heat on himself. The influence of Rocky, including the instances in which he pays the gang handsomely for their help, is more than Jerry can combat. No matter how much gunplay and underworld action takes place, the true battle of the film is waged between the two friends over influencing the boys. Realizing this, Jerry makes it his mission to lead a public relations campaign to expose the corruption and crime throughout the city, even if that means taking Rocky down in the process. Rocky patronizingly gives him the green light to attempt the cleanup, telling Jerry that “You got about as much chance of getting an indictment as I’ve got of getting into bible society.”
No matter how involved Rocky becomes in his neighborhood, he never loses sight of his business interests. While he was away, Frazier rose to a powerful position in the underworld, teaming with Mac Keefer (George Bancroft) to seize control of the rackets. Rocky believes that he will now be collecting his $100,000 Frazier was holding and assume a powerful position in the organization. Frazier and Keefer have no intention of relinquishing such power to Sullivan. Frazier instead stalls Rocky, while secretly plotting to rub him out. When an attempted hit goes awry and Rocky kills his would-be assassins, the organization is thrown into turmoil. Rocky snatches Frazier, forces him to pay the debt, and muscles his way into the organization. Frazier and Keefer are no match for the hardened Sullivan, and they realize it as he outmaneuvers them at every turn. But they quickly recognize the one weak spot in Rocky’s gruff exterior – Father Connolly. When they move to eliminate Jerry, Rocky quickly comes to the defense of his friend.
Angels With Dirty Faces came seven years after James Cagney’s role as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy and a strong case can be made that he eclipsed even that iconic performance. The criticism most often used against Cagney is the claim that he simply played the same character over and over again. It’s similar to the bunk used to try and diminish the acting of John Wayne as well. In both cases, the detractors are horribly misguided. Yes, there are similarities between the gangsters that Cagney portrayed throughout his career. But in each role, Cagney was able to add nuances that distinguished each individual character from any others. Rocky Sullivan is _not_ Tom Powers. And neither of them are Cody Jarrett or Eddie Bartlett (more on these two characters in the near future). For Rocky, it’s the trademark “Whadda ya hear? Whadda ya say?” phrase. It’s the quick shrug of the shoulders as he turns to exit a room. It’s the presence of some humanity that is lacking in other gangsters. Where Powers and Jarrett were sociopaths who seemed hell-bent on violence, Rocky Sullivan is constantly shown to possess redeemable qualities. His loyalty to his lifelong friend is unwavering, even when that friend is trying to dismantle his criminal empire.
As electric as Cagney is, this film is far from being solely his own. It would not have been the same without the direction of Michael Curtiz. While far from forgotten, Curtiz is underappreciated. The shadow cast by his most renowned film, Casablanca, seems too large for many of his other films to emerge from. He is often labeled a pawn of the Hollywood studio system, but that is an overly cynical analysis. While he was a principal of that system, one need only view a film like Angels With Dirty Faces to witness how successful he could be in manipulating that system to his own designs. Just witness the way that he uses smooth, simple, yet highly effective camera movement and brings the Lower East Side neighborhood to life (see above screen shot for an example). The viewer immediately gets the overcrowded feeling of tenement life and the swarming conditions in which Rocky and Jerry come of age. The bustling neighborhood takes on the status of a character itself. Above all, Curtiz was a master storyteller, a quality that is sometimes overlooked as people get swept up in technical achievements and innovation. He had a knack for extracting superlative performances from his leading actors.
Perhaps the best display of Curtiz’s significant contribution to the film is seen in his framing of the tour de force of an ending.
WARNING: As much as I hate to tell somebody to stop reading, if you haven’t seen the end of Angels With Dirty Faces, I beg you to stop now and see it ASAP before reading any kind of analysis on it. It is, in my opinion, among a handful of the best endings to ever come out of Hollywood and I don’t want to rob anyone of the joy that is watching it for the first time… after seeing it, though, make sure you come back and let me know what you think! For now, you can just skip down in the article to the “(/SPOILERS)” tag and continue.
Nowhere are Curtiz’s chops as a director on greater display. Jerry comes to Rocky in his final moments before going to his execution in order to ask a final favor of his pal. He wants Rocky to do the unthinkable – to “die yellow,” as an example to the Dead End Kids that he is not the hero they built him up to be. Rocky bristles at the idea, arguing that his reputation is the only thing he has left and he has no intention of ruining it with his final living action. The march to the death chamber, with Rocky and Jerry walking side by side is nothing short of beautiful. The hallway is ominously dark, with the silhouettes of the police officers trailing behind. The jail cells cast shadows onto the wall, creating the picturesque shot of Rocky walking through the bars and on toward his execution.
The moving conclusion can be read two different ways and apparently is still open to some debate. When Rocky inexplicably begins struggling and begging for his life just before being placed in the electric chair, is he going yellow or is he doing one final favor for Father Jerry? Cagney himself, when questioned about which theory was true, said that he meant for it to be ambiguous and left to the imagination of each viewer. I have no definitive answer as to which is true, but my high assessment of this film is built on the belief that Rocky was following through on what Jerry asked of him. Maybe it’s because I was completely drawn into the Rocky character and simply want to believe that is the case, but I think that the film works better when the ending is interpreted this way.
The ironic thing is that this is the only instance I can think of where having to conform to the Hays Code actually served to enhance an ending. In many crime dramas of the era, there is often the feeling of the story coming to a screeching halt in order to ensure there is time for the criminal to pay for his crimes. In this case, it never had the feel of a cop out, where the gangster has some magical “awakening” and then sees the error of his ways. It allows the Rocky character that was so charming throughout the entire film to retain his “self-respect,” at least between himself and Jerry, while at the same time delivering some form of redemption.
While O’Brien and Cagney are obviously the focus of the film, the supporting cast is still very good. Knowing the persona that he would go on to craft in the next decade, it’s always interesting to see Bogart playing one of his less savory roles. Although his on-screen time is limited, he brings just the right amount of sleaziness to the Frazier character. According to commentary on the excellent DVD release, the Ann Sheridan Laury character was originally slated to have a larger role in the story. While Sheridan does fine, it was a wise decision to pull the character back. The relationship between Rocky and Jerry deserved the bulk of the attention. The fact that Cagney and O'Brien were such good friends off-screen adds a touching element to the friendship that they are able to exhibit through Rocky and Jerry.
The only bum note for me is the Dead End Kids. I understand why they’re included, as they were wildly popular at the time. But there performance is the one aspect of the film that seems dated to me, coming across as very campy. This might simply be a sign of times having changed, but I think a more hard-edged group of teens would have been more effective than the slapstick routine of the Dead End Kids.
I can understand how some people might find it to be overly moralistic, but for me it works masterfully. There is a message being delivered, but the ingenuity of the finish is that it doesn’t force-feed that message to the viewer. It allows the social commentary to be delivered clearly, but it doesn’t completely discard the Rocky Sullivan character that had been cultivated so brilliantly over the course of the film. But it's not just the conclusion that is so captivating. It's beyond just that momentous scene -- it's also little things like the scene where Rocky tells Frazier that he'll take the three years in prison, but leaves an ominous warning to his lawyer: "Look, I know you're a smart lawyer... very smart. But don't get smart with me." It's only a minor couple of seconds in the film, and a lot of people probably never give it a second thought, but something about Cagney's delivery just gives me goosebumps every time I watch it. There are actually quite a few of these seemingly insignificant scenes throughout the film that are just magical.
I've wavered on whether or not to include this in the Perfect 10s. I understand that this is not a flawless film, but it's a prime example of one that has strengths that more than compensate for any weaknesses. It may be extremely subjective, but I can't resist making this entry #2 in the Perfect 10 Reviews section.