Anyone who knows my taste in movies will tell you that any gangster movie from the thirties is probably going to be something I love. Add James Cagney, Ann Sheridan, and Humphrey Bogart, and it’s a cinch that “Angels with Dirty Faces” will be one of my favorite movies of all time.
James Cagney and Pat O’Brien play childhood friends, Rocky and Jerry, respectively. As youngsters, they are being chased by the police and Rocky is caught while Jerry escapes. This sets up the direction of their lives as Rocky learns a life of crime in the prison system and becomes a gangster (as an aside, the actor who plays Cagney’s character as a kid is brilliant, he sounds and moves just like Cagney, but transcends mimicry. When I watch him, I don’t feel like I’m watching someone doing a Cagney impression, I feel like I’m watching a young performer inhabiting Cagney’s personality). Jerry goes on to a college football career and then the priesthood. When Rocky gets out of jail and returns to the old neighborhood, he and Jerry renew their friendship and Jerry hopes for the best from his old friend. Unfortunately, it is not meant to be. Rocky returns to his old ways, sometimes feuding with and sometimes working with organized crime (including his former lawyer, played by Humphrey Bogart). Cagney’s performance is absolutely great. You can tell that he feels a great friendship with Jerry, but he has been a criminal far too long to meaningfully reform. When he interacts with the neighborhood kids (played by “The Dead End Kids,” a group of young scofflaws who appeared in several movies from the thirties to the fifties) he can easily transition from a friendly mentor to a frightening gangster, and their admiration of him, and Jerry’s concern over their direction, drives much of the plot.
I make no secret of my love for Ann Sheridan. She does not get the chance to do too much in this film, although some of her earliest interactions with Cagney show off her strong personality and easy charm on screen. She really is a delight to watch in anything she is in. Michael Curtiz is sadly overlooked in many discussions of great directors. He directed many classics, including “Casablanca” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and, because of the studio system, he directed in various genres, all with great success. Angels With Dirty Faces owes much of it’s impact to him.
The movie’s greatest moment is the ending, which I consider to be one of the great endings in movie history. Cagney is going to be executed and Jerry has gone to the prison to see him. The kids in the neighborhood have grown to respect Rocky so much that Jerry is afraid they will end up just like him. In order to avoid this, he asks Rocky to beg for his life before going to the chair. If he goes to his death defiant, he will still have their respect, but if he turns out to be a coward, he will not. Rocky emphatically rejects Jerry’s request, all he has is his tough-guy reputation and he will not let go of that. In the end, when faced with his death, Rocky breaks down and begs for his life, it is never resolved if he did this for the kids in the neighborhood or if he really was a coward at the end. It is one of the finest pieces of acting I’ve seen and Cagney’s performance is light years ahead of his contemporaries.
Angels with Dirty Faces is a wonderfully acted genre piece which treads the fine line between gangster movie and social commentary successfully. I would recommend this movie to everyone. Also, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I love Ann Sheridan.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1938 worth seeing):
The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, is a genuine classic. I prefer the silent version starring Douglas Fairbanks, but the Flynn version does feature his signature jauntiness and has a great cast, including Claude Raines and Basil Rathbone.
Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky is a beautifully directed historical drama that includes some pretty obvious allusions to the conflict between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
Although it is not my favorite of the great screwball comedies released in this era, Bringing up Baby is a charming vehicle for Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant that is definitely worth checking out.
A Slight Case of Murder is a great option for someone who hopes to see a variation on the gangster theme. It stars Edward G. Robinson, but instead of a serious drama, it is a comedic send up of the genre.
The Marx Brothers film, Room Service, is certainly not their best work, but it is interesting as the only film not written specifically for them (it was adapted from a stage play).
Did you know? (1938 Trivial knowledge)
“Whaddya Hear, Whaddya Say?” Rocky’s catchphrase/greeting throughout the film