Angels With Dirty Faces Reviews

Angels With Dirty Faces (1998)

TV Guide's Online Motion Picture Guide (2000)



Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright Movie Reviews UK 1998.

Almost without watching them you can tell that some movies are forever bound to the age of their creation, they're designed to date. Many are destined for such a fate by dint of being without redeeming virtue, they're release schedule filler, while others are trapped by the culture and current events of the day. Angels with Dirty Faces walks erect amongst the second group, still proud to spread its message that in the long run crime doesn't pay. By itself this is a dead-end, a topic discarded in these years running up to the millennium. Fortunately Angels with Dirty Faces has a trump card, a hand that beats all comers; it's the presence of James Cagney and his coruscating performance.

Playing Rocky Sullivan, a too-many times loser, Cagney reaches inside himself to find pathos, charisma, self-belief and native street smarts. Rocky is a man used to running the show, accustomed to wielding his wit and influence in a hugely beneficial fashion. The dilemma facing Rocky when he walks out of prison, after a long stretch inside, is that his bonds of criminal honour are held in an obsolete currency. Friend and foe alike have abandoned him, forgotten and ignored in public and in private. Even worse, his supposed partner and lawyer James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) has hooked up with Mac Keefer (George Bancroft) and danced the double cross two-step. Now Rocky's alone and powerless, or that's what Frazier would like to think.

The factor that makes Rocky's tale believable is that Angels with Dirty Faces teaches us about his influences. Right at the beginning we catch sight of Rocky hanging out with his best pal Jerry Connolly, talking quick and in the loop of petty theft. Suddenly this perfect world is crushed and Rocky heads off to juvenile detention, while Jerry remains free; on the falling of a tossed dime rests the direction of a man's life. In short order the friends diverge, Rocky rising rapidly through the criminal ranks. Michael Curtiz, as director, ensures that this prologue is perfectly timed and focused, helping us to understand the forces shaping Rocky without taking too much from the meat of the story. It's a journey efficient, economical and informative, preparing us for the times to come.

Launching with such force, Angels with Dirty Faces showcases Cagney on incendiary form, marshalling his formidable talent. When you or I look at Rocky, we can read so much from the way he walks, how he talks and the light in his eyes. He's desperate for a relationship, whether it's with his old buddy Jerry (Pat O'Brien), back-stabbing Frazier or wary but helpless to resist Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan). Rocky wants to fit in, to be accepted, almost more than anything; he hopes enough to make it happen. Yet above this he detests being tricked and taken for a sap, especially when it comes to a deal thought to be sealed and settled. This is the root of his downfall, the trigger of the gun that blows Rocky away; with this he even loses the Dead End Kids. Young ruffians, the only ones watching Rocky for leadership and a role model, eventually even they reluctantly abandon his misguided care.

Luckily for the audience, Rowland Brown's story is far more complex than the simple gangster melodrama trappings might suggest. The dominant characters are fully rounded, there's more to them than an initial impression might suggest. Rocky isn't just a mean gangster, he's also a man visiting his old neighbourhood, remembering childhood adventures. With the Dead End Kids he's funny, forgiving and blind to his own impact on malleable teenagers. O'Brien, a little more constrained by his position nevertheless talks frankly and without fear; as much as he loves Rocky, Jerry won't sacrifice the future for the past. This is the emotional dynamic central to Angels with Dirty Faces. Curtiz pays less attention to the smaller roles, yet Sheridan and Bogart do quite well, pulling Rocky in different directions all at once.

Given its age and pretension to socially engineer, it's not surprising that the movie has trouble communicating with a modern audience. The sharp lines have bite but their content is past its sell-by date. What saves Angels with Dirty Faces is Cagney and the complexity of his role. From the moment he leaves jail it's clear that Rocky is headed in one direction only, the single uncertainty being the timescale. His descent is inevitable because time has made him an outsider and, as such, Rocky will destroy what he can't have. Technically, Sol Polito's photography attains his usual standard of excellence while Max Steiner's score underpins the action scenes without disrupting them. This is a fine and memorable film, a production weakened only by its handling of the chosen subject matter.

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Angels with Dirty Faces
TV Guide's Online Motion Picture Database
Copyright TV Guide 2000

One of the most stirring, colorful, and thoroughly memorable gangster films ever made, this distinctive movie, more than any other, established James Cagney as the screen's favorite sentimental tough guy. It is the unforgettable mannerisms that Cagney incorporates into his performance here that impressionists frequently choose to imitate.

Rocky Sullivan (Frankie Burke) and Jerry Connelly (William Tracy), a pair of youths growing up on New York's impoverished Lower East Side, are caught in the act of robbing a railroad car. The fleet-footed Jerry escapes the pursuing police, but Rocky is not so lucky. Observing the code of silence, Rocky refuses to identify his friend and is sent to a reformatory, graduating to prison after committing one crime after another. Reforming after witnessing Rocky's fate, Jerry eventually goes into the priesthood. Years pass, and Rocky (now played by Cagney) is released from prison. He rents a room in his old neighborhood from Laury Ferguson (Sheridan), whom he used to pick on when they were children. Next Rocky looks up his childhood friend Jerry, who has become Father Jerry (Pat O'Brien), the caretaker of a broken-down parish and the shepherd of a rough bunch of boys. The boys (played by Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell, and others who, as a result of this film, would go on to become The Dead End Kids) are thrilled to meet a big-time gangster like Rocky. They idolize him in every way, much to the chagrin of Father Jerry, who is trying to teach the youngsters that a life of crime is nothing to envy. After getting settled, Cagney pays a call on his lawyer, James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), who has been keeping $100,000 for him. Later he meets rackets boss Mac Keefer (George Bancroft). Both promise to cut Rocky in on their lucrative operations, but, after he leaves, they plot to have him killed. As the gangsters battle, Father Jerry launches a radio and newspaper campaign against Rocky, Keefer, and Frazier, with Rocky's tolerant blessing. Laury by this time has fallen in love with the doomed Rocky. When he learns that Keefer and Frazier are planning to have Father Jerry killed, Rocky kills both men, then is captured after a shootout with police in a warehouse. His trial is swift and he's sentenced to death. Just before Rocky is to be executed, Father Jerry visits him and asks for one small favor, imploring Rocky to die like a coward so the boys in the neighborhood will despise his memory and, the priest hopes, keep to the straight and narrow. Rocky snarls his refusal, but as he is being taken to his death, he suddenly loses his swagger and begins crying and pleading for his life. The next day, newspaper headlines scream, "ROCKY DIES YELLOW!" and Father Jerry then leads the despondent boys to church so they can "pray for a boy who couldn't run as fast I could."

Action-filled, brimming with humor, and featuring terrific performances, this is a wonderfully entertaining film. It also was potentially hazardous to its star. During the warehouse shootout scene, live ammo was to be used, but Cagney, remembering that he was almost shot down under similar circumstances when filming PUBLIC ENEMY in 1931, asked director Michael Curtiz to superimpose the gunfire. The feisty Curtiz refused, but Cagney declined to be in front of the window when the machine-gun was fired, which no doubt saved his life when a burst of gunfire blasted through the pane of glass where Curtiz had wanted Cagney to stand. Most of the film's humor is derived from the interaction between Cagney and the future Dead Enders. Cagney shows a marvelous rapport with the young actors, especially when he referees their version of a basketball game. During the making of the movie, the boys had been wreaking havoc on the set, once cornering Bogart and tearing his pants off. Led by Gorcey, who kept ad-libbing his scenes during the basketball game, destroying the other actors' concentration and cues, the boys then tried to bully Cagney. But during a break Cagney slapped Gorcey hard on the forehead, startling him, then poked him in the chest, and admonished the young actor to cut the nonsense. After that the boys behaved.

The character played by Cagney had a curious role model. All the exaggerated mannerisms he employs--the uncomfortable twisting of his neck, as if his tie is too tight, the lifting of his shoulders, and the biting of his lower lip so that his upper teeth show--came from a New York pimp Cagney had observed in his youth, a man who stood on a corner all day long going into weird gyrations, shouting out, "Whaddya hear, whaddya say?" (a line used constantly by Cagney in the film.) Cagney received an Academy Award nomination for his characterization of Rocky Sullivan, but he would wait four more years before getting an Oscar for YANKEE DOODLE DANDY. Prolific director Curtiz scored a double nomination in 1938, being recognized by the Academy for his direction of this film and of FOUR DAUGHTERS; the award, however, went to Frank Capra for YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU. Rowland Brown's screenplay also got a nomination for Best Original Story. The theme of two boyhood friends going down different paths, one to respectability, the other to crime, was a popular one in the 30s, used in other films such as DEAD END and MANHATTAN MELODRAMA.

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