Angels with Dirty Faces – Best Pictures of 1938 (#8)

James Cagney dusts off his tough-guy persona in this Warner Bros. gangster movie, the eighth best of 1938.  He plays Rocky Sullivan, a big time crook just out of prison returning to his childhood neighborhood.  He’s looking to reconnect with his former partner in crime, Jim Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), now a big shot in the city’s crime world. Frazier, however, is eager to dodge Rocky and cut him out of the deals he’s been in on.  Rocky realizes that his partner has double-crossed him and waits for his opportunity to get even.

Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney

This sounds a bit like a gangster pic that would have been popular early in the 1930s, but director Michael Curtiz and screenwriters John Wexley and Warren Duff have taken that familiar formula and inserted it in a more mature, aware time, a time when everyone had seen Public Enemy.  It’s a little unfair because everyone knows Rocky’s a relic.  He doesn’t; he never saw Public Enemy or Little Caesar and, as a consequence, he never grew up.  Even his old partner Frazier understands that the old days of shoot-‘em-ups are passé, out of step with the times.  Frazier became a lawyer while Rocky was on ice and found a way to be crooked and still be a respected member of society.  Frazier, like everyone else, had seen Scarface and didn’t want to meet the same fate as Paul Muni.  The world is no longer impressed by Rocky Sullivan’s antiquated tough guy act.  They know once Hollywood picks it up, it doesn’t carry as much weight.

James Cagney approaches his character as though Angels could be a sequel to a Public Enemy in which Tom Powers was sent up the river rather than bumped off.  But when he gets out of prison he finds a world that is wise to him and his kind, something that wasn’t true five to ten years earlier.  He’s no longer quite so intimidating.

Cagney and Pat O'Brien with the Dead End Kids

The only ones impressed by Rocky’s philosophy of life are the kids he meets (the second screen appearance of the Dead End Kids) in his old neighborhood.  But they are kids who think they know all they need to about the world; only their heroes, unapproachably godlike, can teach them anything, like legendary Rocky Sullivan.  That Rocky embraces them and invites him into his inner-circle would have been a bit like Lou Gehrig offering to give them baseball tips.  For them Rocky is a celebrity and they lap up everything he tells them as though it were gospel.  But Father Connolly (Pat O’Brien), a childhood friend of Rocky’s, struggles to keep both Rocky and the kids out of trouble.  Well, we know Rocky can’t stay out of trouble.  It isn’t in his nature and that would make for a boring movie.

Father Connolly’s battle for the moral life of those kids does not trump his struggle for Rocky’s soul, even though Rocky is the worst influence on the kids.  Father Connolly tries to use their adulation of Rocky as a way to save both, prodding Rocky to use his influence for good, like helping to organize a basketball team.  But Father Connolly’s strategy doesn’t pan out.  Rocky knows no other way, and the Dead End Kids will follow him over a cliff.

It is the end that poses the biggest question (which I won’t give away here).  It is never clear whether Rocky does what he does for Father Connolly or because he really turns yellow.  Though the motivation is debatable, Cagney pulls off a great scene to top off a great performance.  Then again, maybe it’s because the motivation is debatable that the scene is great.  We can read what we want into his reaction, just as we made folk heroes out of our criminals in the 1930s.  Just as we read their crimes however we wanted, Curtiz gave us an ending challenging us to rethink the mythology of the criminal that Hollywood helped create.

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7 Comments

Filed under 1938, Yearly Best Pictures

7 responses to “Angels with Dirty Faces – Best Pictures of 1938 (#8)

  1. Yes, this is an extremely “popular” choice, Jason, to list among the best films of this year, but it’s also one than can be irrefutably argued. You’ve discussed the unique aspects that allowed the film to end with one of the most wrenching sequences in all of American cinema, one that would bring a tear to even the hardest of hearts. And Cagney’s performance: charismatic, adored by the kids, street-wise and loyal to his friend the priest allow emotion to replace humor like the breaking of the floodgates in a dam. O’Brien and teh Dead End kids are quite good too, but what makes the film so great is that it stirs the emotions while entertaining on a broad level.

    Fantastic essay here.

  2. Pingback: “Battleship Potemkin,” “If I Want to Whistle I Whistle,” Ibsen’s Play “The Master Builder,” The Caldecott Medal and the Jets on Monday Morning Diary (January 17) « Wonders in the Dark

  3. Another great review, Jason. I love this movie and think it is definitely one of Cagney’s greatest, especially that ending, which is breathtaking, as you say. It’s also interesting to compare the radio performance of ‘Angels’ he did, where the ending doesn’t have the ambiguity because it’s made clear Rocky is doing it for Father Connolly – although the sheer raw power of the emotion inevitably gives some ambiguity to that final scene anyway. I love to hear Cagney’s radio performances because it gives a bit of a feeling of what he would have been like live on stage. I think Bogart’s role is a bit of a waste of his talents, but he does very well with what scenes he gets.

    • Thanks Judy. That’s really interesting about the radio program. I haven’t heard it, but how do they clarify his motivation? I would be curious to hear how they pulled that off. And I agree about Bogart. Warners was still trying to figure out what to do with him in 1938, so he got lots of supporting roles like this, though he had done well in the lead of “Black Legion” the year before. But it’s ok. “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon” are just around the corner.

      • In the radio version, before the final outburst, Cagney whispers “Ok, Jerry, ok.” I agree Bogart was great in ‘Black Legion’ – a shame Warner didn’t build on that right away, but, as you say, he got the roles in the end.

        • That’s interesting. I would be curious to find out why they made that change for radio. I love the ambiguity of the movie. I’m not sure the movie would have played the same if he had uttered those words at the end.

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