1938's Angels with Dirty Faces is a prime example of the post-1934 gangster film. Centering not on the life of a gangster but on the conflict between "good" (as represented by a priest) and "bad" (the gangster), Angels With Dirty Faces is a film that asks "What about the children?" The real center of the film is a group of neighborhood kids - the "angels" - who are lured into corruption by a charismatic but deadly gangster. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film stars James Cagney (the star of Public Enemy), Pat O'Brian and the soon-to-be famous Humphrey Bogart.
The film opens in the early 1920s in an tenement neighborhood. Young friends William "Rocky" Sullivan (Cagney) and Jerry Connolly (O'Brian) are hanging out wondering what to do with their day. Rocky and Jerry tease some girls passing by, and one of them - Laury Martin - stands up to Rocky. After pulling Laury's hat over her head, the boys run off to the railroad yard, where they break into a freight car. Caught by the watchman, Rocky and Jerry make a run for it. Jerry jumps a fence, but the cops catch Rocky and drag him away. Jerry visits Rocky in a home for delinquents, offering to take some of the blame for the crime, but Rocky refuses the offer.
A montage establishes Rocky's criminal career, from larceny to bootlegging to assault. He is a major player in the gang wars. Finally we see Rocky speaking with his crooked lawyer, Frazier (Bogart), from a jail. Frazier tells his client that Rocky will only have to stay in jail for three years. While Rocky is in jail, Frazier will make the connections necessary for the two to start their own organization. Frazier also promises Rocky $100,000 from a heist the two pulled off.
After his discharge, Rocky makes his way back to his old neighborhood and his old church, where he sees Jerry, who is now a priest, directing a group of schoolboys. Rocky and Father Jerry happily reunite, remembering their own wild days, fifteen years ago. Father Jerry takes Rocky to a boarding house where he can stay. The girl who takes Rocky to his room just happens to be Laury (played by Ann Sheridan), who playfully slaps Rocky in "revenge" for his childhood teasing.
After getting his room, Rocky meets with Frazier, who does not have the $100,000 but gives Rocky $500 as "spending money." Rocky and Frazier speak with racketeer Keefer, and Rocky asks if there is any work for him in the boss' organization. After Rocky leaves, the shady Frazier sets up his old partner for a hit.
While walking through his old neighborhood, Rocky's wallet is lifted by a gang of kids that Jerry works with. To teach them a lesson, Rocky sneaks into the "gang's" hideout pretending to hold a gun. He collects his money, then tells the kids that they shouldn't rob anyone who knows where their hideout is - revealing his own initials carved into the walls so long ago. Rocky has the kids up to his room for snacks. When Father Jerry arrives in Rocky's room, the kids are smitten by the real-life gangster and turn their nose up at the priest's offer of a wholesome basketball game - until Rocky dares the kids to play.
During the game, Father Jerry cannot control the rowdy players. Rocky steps in and gives the offenders a taste of their own medicine - when a boy trips another player, Rocky trips him, and so on. The boys, who were once so unwilling to play, are now raring for a rematch (despite the fact that they lose 32-8).
Rocky walks Laury home, learning on the way that she was married to a small-time crook who met his end in a shoot-out with the cops. He tries to convince her that her husband died not because he was a criminal, but because he was not smart enough to outwit the cops. Rocky realizes that he is being followed. He drops Lauren off and ducks into a drugstore, where he maneuvers his assassin into stepping into the phone booth where he himself was to be shot. The hit man is pumped full of lead while Rocky sneaks out the back.
Rocky confronts the treacherous Frazier and rifles through the lawyer's safe, finding money and incriminating documents. He forces Frazier to call Keefer for the $100,000. The next day, Rocky comes to Keefer to collect his money, holding Frazier hostage as security. Keefer gives Rocky the money but calls the cops on Rocky. Rocky, realizing that the cops are coming, gives Soapy (the head of the gang of kids) the envelope full of cash. Soapy hides it and Rocky gets off scot-free, later giving the kids a cut of the money as the reward. The kids spend the money in a pool hall, where the angry Father Jerry catches them.
Rocky meets with Frazier and Keefer and gains a share in the El Toro nightclub. He promises Laury that her days in the slums are over and that he will move her in to the nightclub. Rocky also donates $10,000 to Father Jerry so that the priest can build a recreation center - but Father Jerry returns the dirty money.
Father Jerry doesn't just return the money, he declares war on Rocky and his gangster friends, speaking out against corruption and racketeering. A citizens' movement grows, and the audience sees Frazier, Keefer, and Rocky nervously listening to Father Jerry make a speech over the radio - revealing that Frazier had attempted to bribe him. Frazier and Keefer wish to assassinate Father Jerry, but Rocky will not hurt his old friend. The situation ends with Rocky killing Frazier and Keefer to protect himself and Father Jerry.
Rocky runs from the cops into an abandoned warehouse. After police pump bullets and tear gas into the building, Rocky still will not surrender. Finally Father Jerry goes up to meet Rocky. Rocky takes Father Jerry hostage in order to get out of the building. Rounding a corner, he makes a break for it but is caught by the cops - his gun is empty.
Rocky's fall is seen through the eyes of the neighborhood street gang, as they become increasingly dismayed by the gangster's slim hopes for release. Reading that Rocky is to be electrocuted, they comfort themselves with the thought that Rocky will be brave when he dies.
In the prison cell, Rocky lives out his last day. A visitor arrives - Father Jerry. The priest asks the hoodlum if he can do him a favor. Father Jerry wants Rocky to die a coward, so that the kids in the old neighborhood will not think him a hero any longer. Rocky refuses, saying that his bravery is the only thing he has left. He is marched down the hall to the electric chair, stonefaced all the way.
Suddenly, when confronted with the chair, Rocky breaks down, pleading for his life, crying and begging. Father Jerry watches with a tear in his eye as the switch is pulled.
The last scene is of the neighborhood kids gathered over the newspaper, reading a headline about Rocky's cowardly death. They cannot believe the paper. Father Jerry arrives, and they ask if Rocky really died a coward. Sadly, Father Jerry says it is true. He then leads the children up to the light, to "say a prayer for a boy who couldn't run as fast as I could." (www.filmsite.org)
Angels With Dirty Faces differs from its predecessors in notable ways. Like the earlier Warner films Angels goes back to focusing on the making of a young gangster, but unlike them it gave the social formula a moralistic twist. Its main characters were influences but not driven to become gangsters due to their childhood. The fact that jerry chooses to become a priest and the fact that Rocky chooses to repent and not be a martyr in the end suggests that the life of a gangster is a chosen one more than any other gangster film in the depression. Boredom is highlighted (instead of physical need or the influence of bad society) as a reason for young boys to turn to crime. In the first scene of Angels, young Rocky and Jerry don't even have enough money to go to the movies - they have no other option for entertainment than petty larceny. Poverty, however, is still represented as a lure to a life of crime. When Rocky presents the neighborhood kids with their money, one of the kids stares at the money and mentions that it's more than his father ever made at his job at the Department of Sanitation. If these children are presented with an alternative to the excitement and monetary rewards of crime, perhaps they will grow up to be better men than hoodlums and racketeers.
The social optimism of movies such as Angels reflects the new mood of optimism in the country. Compared to the do-nothing government of the Hoover administration, the social programs of Franklin Roosevelt seemed to be getting the country up and going again. In real life, the government was sponsoring programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, intended to keep boys such as Father Jerry's from mischief. Such programs were perceived not just as giving hope both to idle, poverty-struck children but also to the adults who found useful occupation in such programs.
The individual man of action that the initial gangsters were is lost in this movie. The archetypical gangster now existed and Angels pandered to the genre without making Rocky stand out from the crowd. The Era of the big gangster bosses was also over with. Al Capone was now in jail, and the era of bootlegging ended with the repeal of Prohibition after Roosevelt's election. Angels With Dirty Faces reflects this new reality. Rocky's criminal deals all center on the alliance he made with Frazier in his past. Through his connections with Frazier, he is able to get into Keefer's racket, but this "racket" really only involves the dangerous activity of nightclub ownership. Gone are the gang wars of such movies as Scarface - the only men Rocky shoots are Frazier and Keefer, who are shown to be threats to his life multiple times. The big time gangster era was over.
Also differing greatly form the other films Angels brought the positive message that despite social ills the American dream could be reached without the lure of gangster culture. In the last scene the neighbor hood children read about Rocky's cowardly death and unable to believe it look to Father Jerry for guidance. He then leads the children in prayer for Rocky who he characterizes as, "a boy who couldn't run as fast as I could." Leaving the reader to assume it was Rocky's disadvantages as a child that lead him to a life of crime but that things can get better and that the era of the depression could be left behind. Understandably, Angels did not receive criticism from the League of Decency or the Hayes office. The times were changing and the new Roosevelt administration renewed American's faith in it's own dreams.