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.
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.
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.