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Michael Curtiz has made some great films, yet the only one that tends
to be well received among film fans is his contender for the best movie
ever made - obviously Casablanca (and Robin Hood, to a lesser extent).
However, the man has a wealth of other influential classics under his
belt that don't tend to get the recognition that they deserve, and
Angels With Dirty Faces is one of those films. To sum the film up
easily, one would say that it is a crime drama. However; like the best
crime dramas, this one has multiple themes that elevate it from being
merely a film about crime, to being a character study, a portrait of
what it is that makes a hero and a condemnation of criminals on the
whole. The story follows Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly; two young
New York thugs, the former of which is caught by the police and sent to
a reform school, where, ironically, he learns to be a criminal. The
latter escapes punishment and goes on to become a priest. The story
follows these two men as they meet up as adults and have an effect on
the lives of the kids of their old neighbourhood.
The focus of the film is always centred on the neighbourhood. This allows Curtiz to show us the effects that Rocky's criminal endeavours have on the kids of the neighbourhood more effectively. This sort of narrative would be employed in later films, such as the critically acclaimed 'City of God', and works well here too. The way the film shows how impressionable young kids can be influenced by adults works brilliantly, and Curtiz is able to continue this theme up until the powerful ending. James Cagney would later go on to achieve major fame in the incredible 'White Heat', but here he shows us what the quintessential New York gangster would be like. His performance, in short, is incredible and easily ranks among the best gangster roles of all time. The rest of the cast do well in their roles, with distinct New York accents helping to firmly place the audience in the city that the film is taking place in. Furthermore, the film is economic in the way it's plotted and it's also very exciting, and therefore guaranteed to delight it's audience.
Angels With Dirty Faces is an absolute cinema classic and quite why it isn't more famous is anyone's guess. Although not quite as good as Casablanca, this is a major notch in Michael Curtiz's filmography and I wouldn't have any qualms with recommending this to film fans at all.
"Angels With Dirty Faces" has been called the gangster movie of the New
Deal. Previously, with such early-30s films as "Little Caesar" and "Public
Enemy," gangster films at their best were engrossing actioners with
charismatic but undeniably evil central figures. "Angels With Dirty Faces,"
released in 1938, presents a more nuanced view of what makes the modern bad
man tick. Is it a bad heart? Or is society to blame?
Cagney is undeniably great in the role that made him a legend. His practiced patter never wears thin, and his screen presence is electric throughout. (Especially at the end, and I don't mean that as a pun.) But the screenwriters never let us forget the good in the man. We see him come up against more ruthless elements of the underworld, people like Bogart (a real baddie here) who have no compunction about killing a man if it means avoiding payment of a heavy debt. We see him interact with a group of starry-eyed juveniles (The Dead End Kids) whose nickel-and-dime antics fill him with a poignant but heartily-amusing nostalgia. And we see him try to do right by his former partner in crime, now a priest played by Hugh O'Brien.
But Cagney is trapped by the circumstances of his life. He can't walk away from a life of crime, which has made him what he is and gives him the only life satisfaction he knows. He's correctly on guard for double-crossers at every turn. When cornered, his cheery face becomes bug-eyed and menacing. We know he's bad, but we like him, and that puts us in the company of the audience-surrougate figure, Father Connolly.
Director Curtiz was an auteur before his time, filling his canvas with images of downtrodden street life. This isn't for mere effect, but to show us why Rocky is what he is and how come he finds little hope for his redemption. There are souls to be saved in this picture, but for Father Connolly, they are Laurie and the boys. He must take on his childhood chum, the same kid who saved Connolly from the perils of the Mean Streets and allowed him to become what he was.
It is a choice between God and friendship, and while Connolly has little doubt which way to go, the audience may not be with him all the way. The ending points up this spiritual conflict in some of the most harrowing terms ever brought to screen at that time. When you really think about what's going on behind Connolly's face in that final scene, it's a real tear-inducer.
Was Rocky's last scene a put-up job? I guess it can be argued back and forth, but the real question of value is whether, if it was faked, was it enough to perform a miracle even the good Father Connolly wouldn't have quite believed in, the salvation of Rocky. The last image of the boys, desolately accepting the news of their hero's fall, is at once triumphant and bittersweet. Nothing comes easy in this world of ours.
"Angels With Dirty Faces" may strike a falsely optimistic note to some, but it is optimism well-earned by the honesty of vision expressed. Add to that clever dialogue, great pacing, and one of cinema's keystone performances by Cagney, and you have a real keeper here.
P.S. It also features one of the finest Cagney impersonations ever, by William Tracey as the young Rocky. Funny stuff.
This film certainly has an attractive cast with three Hall-Of-Fame
actors and the very pretty Ann Sheridan.
James Cagney, my favorite actor of classic films, once again steals most of the scenes. He just dominates the screen and gets you very involved with his character, especially at the end. Pat O'Brien plays his normal somewhat-liberal and likable priest role and Humphrey Bogart is convincing as the crooked lawyer. Bogart was the bad guy in most films until he became a big star a couple years after this film.
The "Dead End Kids" are a pretty tough bunch. Seeing them play basketball is quite a sight - more like rugby. It must be one of the highlights of this entertaining film because I remember it so well....it was so different from any other basketball game I've ever seen!
The shootout-and-chase scene near the end was well-done with some great film-noir photography and the ending of the movie is quite memorable. Frankly, the first time I saw this I thought it was overrated but after the second viewing - and then seeing a nice transfer on DVD - I changed my mind. It is anything but overrated.
The rise and fall of Rocky Sullivan, tough guy gangster but square
fellow, was the subject of this excellent film by Warner Brothers in
1938. It has several things going for it that maintains it's high
ratings among gangster films and Cagney movies.
For one thing, Cagney's brilliant performance as Rocky won him his first major film award - the 1938 New York Film Critics Award for best actor. It is frequently forgotten that Cagney won this award four years before his Oscar winner in "Yankee Doodle Dandy", but in actuality the performance was the high point of the work he did (up to that time) as a gangster (his performances in "White Heat" and "Love Me Or Leave Me" were way in the future). It drives home how much of a struggle it was for Cagney to get out of the gangster mode, and why his George M. Cohan was such a striking change for his fans.
Secondly it was the sequel (the first sequel) of the Bowery Boy feature films after their introduction in "Dead End". Oddly enough, in that film, Humphrey Bogart was the out and out gangster "Baby Face" Martin, who was the villain in the film. Baby Face enjoyed his following with the gang of boys in that film. Here, though, Bogart was playing a weaselly lawyer named Jim Frazier, who is cowardly - quite a different type from Baby Face, who is angry at the state of his world and how ugly it has become. But Baby Face, at least, had guts.
The Bowery Boys are again a gang of street kids, who Father Jerry Connelly (Pat O'Brien) is trying to keep on the straight and narrow. Here, however, they worship Rocky, the local punk who did rise in the underworld and made a name for himself. But Rocky is Jerry's oldest friend, and he is also willing to help the priest with the boys.
The story deals with how Bogart and his new boss, Mac Keefer (the unjustly forgotten George Bancroft) have gotten control of over 100,000 dollars (1930 style dollars - about twenty million in buying power today), that belongs to Cagney. Cagney wants it back, and when Bogart and Bancroft keep putting him off he uses strong arm methods to force them into line. Eventually things blow up, and Cagney ends up in a gun battle that leaves a dead cop. He is tried and found guilty for this murder, and goes to the death house. This leads to one of the most frightening moments in Cagney's film career - when we see his final moments when being taken to the electric chair to be strapped in. I guarantee once seen you will never forget it.
There are one or two interesting points of a historical nature about Cagney's performance as Rocky. First, that massive gun battle that is shown (where he kills the cop and battles the police department from a building. It actually happened! In about 1931 there was an incident in Manhattan when a young hood, "Two Gun" Crowley, held off police after a homicide in a battle that lasted nearly an entire afternoon. Crowley (like Rocky) was defeated by tear gas. Like Rocky, he too died in the electric chair.
It has been pointed out that Cagney based some of Rocky's mannerisms on a drug addict character he knew in his old Hell's Gate/Yorkville area when he was a kid. Cagney mentions this in his memoir CAGNEY. But there is a curious second source. In his youth, Jimmy Cagney came from a family that struggled but managed to have food on the table and clothes on their back. But some of his playmates were not so lucky. One was a fellow nicknamed "Bootah" (because of the oversize boots he was forced to wear) whose real name was Peter Heslin. Cagney always was friendly with Peter, but their lives drifted apart. On April 5, 1926, Heslin was engaged in an armed robbery when an off-duty police officer, Charles H. Reilly, tried to stop him and was shot and killed. But Heslin (who was also wounded in the encounter) was captured shortly afterward. He was tried and convicted, and finally executed on July 21, 1927. That same night, a star was born on Broadway where Jimmy Cagney made a name for himself as a singer and dancer in the show "Broadway". Cagney was aware of the tragedy playing out with his friend at Sing Sing that night. He mentions Bootah's execution in his memoirs. Newspaper accounts of Heslin's electrocution do not mention anything unusual, but one wonders if (when Cagney was doing the scene) he thought of his unfortunate friend and added a bit more power to those last moments of the film.
"Angels With Dirty Faces" has become a favorite Bogart film by default;
it has been shown so often and has served as the prime source of
material for countless satirists and impressionists
It is the familiar tale of two young boys who grow up to be on opposing sides of the fieldone a gangster (James Cagney) and the other a priest, (Pat O'Brien). The story was obviously sentimental Its saving virtues were the performances by the leads, clever and suave, energetic direction by Michael Curtiz, and a good music score by Max Steiner
Bogart had little, and certainly nothing new, to do as he played Cagney's lawyer-turned-nightclub-owner who double-crosses him
"Angels With Dirty Faces" was James Cagney's first film for Warner
Bros. following his two year contract dispute. During that time he
appeared in two films for the poverty row studio Grand National. With a
few concessions to The Production Code (introduced in 1934) it is
nonetheless one of the great all time gangster films. The touch of
legendary director Michael Curtiz is evident throughout.
The story begins in the 1920s with two boyhood pals "Rocky" Sullivan (Frankie Burke) and Jerry Connelly (William Tracy) in the Hell's Kitchen Neighborhood of New York. Rocky gets arrested by the police and is sent to the reformatory after a botched break in while Jerry escapes. While in prison, Rocky learns the evils of gangsterism from within and forges a life of crime and growing up to be James Cagney. Meanwhile Jerry has become a priest in the Pierson of Pat O'Brien.
Rocky returns to the old neighborhood and becomes involved with a group of teenagers (The Dead End Kids) who are headed in the same direction as Rocky. Fr. Jerry prevails upon Rocky to help him straighten the boys out before its too late. Rocky also meets up with a girl from his childhood, Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan).
Meanwhile we learn that Rocky has served three years in jail to protect his former partner and lawyer Jim Frazier (Humphrey Bogart). He has also entrusted Frazier with $100,000 from an earlier caper. Rocky goes to Frazier to demand his money and learns that Frazier is now involved with crime boss Mac Keefer (George Bancroft) and that they plan to cheat him out of his money. Hey, nobody double crosses Rocky.
Cagney is typical Cagney, bold, brash and cocky as Rocky. O'Brien as the Irish priest was a role he was born to play. Sheridan looks lovely but has little to do. Bogart, who was still 3 years away from major stardom, does well as the yellow back stabbing lawyer. The Dead End Kids - Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell, Bernard Punsley) would move to a "B" series (without Hallop) after their Warner contract expired in 1939. The performances of Frankie Burke in particular and William Tracy as the young Rocky and Jerry are excellent.
"Angels With Dirty Faces" is probably best remembered for its ending. don't miss it.
Angels With Dirty Faces is a milestone film for the careers of both
James Cagney and Pat O'Brien. Up to now they had been successfully
teamed by Warner Brothers in a whole series of buddy films. In fact it
is my contention that they popularized that particular genre. Here they
are childhood friends, but as adults, adversaries due to the course in
life they took.
Cagney came off suspension from Warner Brothers and agreed to do this film as his comeback of sorts. At first glance it seems just like another gangster flick, just what Cagney had been trying to get away from. But by force of personality and a superior script, Cagney turned the role of Rocky Sullivan into a classic and got his first Academy Award nomination.
As for O'Brien, this was his first clerical role. Usually O'Brien is the fast talking manager, press agent,etc. When playing a priest Pat O'Brien slows the pace of the dialog down to a crawl and it works. He greatly expanded his range here and there were many other classic clerical roles to come.
Cagney's a notorious gangster who's just been let out of prison after a three year stretch, taking a fall for his crooked attorney, Humphrey Bogart. Bogart was supposed to guard his $100,000.00 Cagney had squirreled away from illegal activities in the Twenties. Bogart's got a new partner now in George Bancroft and neither of them wants to cut Cagney in on anything.
Let's just say that Cagney in the usual Cagney fashion makes both of them wish they'd played it on the square.
Father O'Brien's concern is that notorious criminal Cagney is becoming a hero to some of the neighborhood kids in his parish. But he also can't forget that the two of them had been boyhood pals and that Cagney's first brush with the law was over a petty crime that O'Brien was equally guilty of. This is shown in a small prologue with three players portraying, Cagney, O'Brien, and neighborhood girl Ann Sheridan as kids.
Young Frankie Burke is astounding in his portrayal of the young Cagney. He has him down perfectly, he becomes Cagney. Angels With Dirty Faces is worth watching for him alone.
Those other juvenile actors with Warner Brothers at the time, The Dead End Kids, play the kids from the parish who come to idolize and idealize Cagney. O'Brien has one tough time trying to make them see that Cagney's life is not the way to go in life.
Angels With Dirty Faces still has a powerful message for today and film aficionados should see it because of that and because it was a key turning point in the careers of James Cagney and Pat O'Brien.
Throughout the 1930's, Warner Brothers delivered many quality crime and gangster dramas that usually featured the likes of the studio's distinguished contract star roster. This 1938 release is one of the prime examples. James Cagney and Pat O'Brien (who were frequently cast in films together and this is their best one together) portray boyhood buddies who reunite years later after Cagney is released from prison where he had served for many years for a petty crime that he committed while he was still a kid. Cagney has not learned his lesson that crime doesn't pay and so he returns to his old neighborhood to set up his criminal hideout. Meanwhile, his old friend, O'Brien has given up being a street hood and has since become a respected priest who naturally doesn't think highly of the life that his friend has chosen for himself. To make matters worse, six young boys (portrayed by the Dead End Kids) whom O'Brien is trying to lead down the right paths begin to idolize Cagney. Humphrey Bogart also appears in a pre big box office star part as a lawyer and screen veteran George Bancroft also costars as a dishonest crime boss. Michael Curtiz' direction and Max Steiner's musical score are also highlights. This film is one of the all time great ones of the 1930's and an excellent showcase for its legendary cast and crew.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
James Cagney really struts his stuff in this one, and all his classic "caricature" type movements and traits are on vivid display here. I loved the interplay between Cagney and Humphrey Bogart (in a supporting role); also intriguing was the relationship between the now-grown Rocky Sullivan (that's Cagney's character) and the straight-laced Jerry (played by Pat O'Brien), who was the childhood friend of Rocky and partner in mischief who wound up spending his adulthood as a priest while his companion never was able to go completely straight.
The Dead End Kids tended to get on my nerves at times, but I guess that's partly what they're supposed to do, as street punks who idolize the legendary Sullivan and want to follow in his infamous footsteps.
Just want to mention that I thought the ending - with Cagney's change of demeanor in the electric chair and the resulting disappointment of the kids who worshipped him - was a great cinematic moment by director Michael Curtiz. People have debated whether or not Cagney is supposed to be genuinely afraid at the end or just putting on a show for the kids to learn something from. I'm of the opinion that he was acting cowardly, and that he did it primarily as a favor to his longtime friend, Father Pat O'Brien. In the process he was able to help the young gang of thugs re-think their futures as well.
This film is included on my personal top 10 list. The old-time ethnic
(?) of New York City in the 20's and 30's are a picaresque window to
time. One where gangsters were heroes (to some) and filled newspapers
their exploits. Tales of crime and riches are like candy to the gangs of
kids living in poverty, while seeking their own escape to something
They could only learn from experience, what Rocky Sullivan (Cagney)
knew, there is no honor among thieves. No honor, and no road back for
Rocky. But, sometimes, for someone else, fate gets a push.
A very interesting, fast-paced story, I recommend this highly. The transition from Rocky's childhood to his adult years is especially well done and cast. In 'spirited' discussions with friends, we STILL don't agree on Rocky's thoughts and motivations at the end of the film. WAS HE GIVEN AN 'OUT' ? WAS HE HERO OR COWARD? WAS IT WHAT HE WANTED? WAS IT IMPOSED ON HIM? WAS IT CALCULATED OR DID IT POUR OUT UNCONTROLLABLY? Judge for yourself. After a few viewings, it's not as simple as it appears......
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