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A classic gangster film of Hollywood's Golden Age from Casablanca
director Michael Curtiz, Angels with Dirty Faces is one of James
Cagney's most well known films and had him nominated for his first
Rocky Sullivan (Cagney) and Jerry Connelly (Pat O'Brien) are childhood friends who are caught robbing a train as kids. After Rocky takes the rap the two set on different paths, Jerry becomes a priest while Rocky can't escape the life of crime. Years later they reunite on friendly terms but each have a different influence on a group of street kids who resemble the lifestyle they once shared.
The film for the most part may seem to be just a typical 1930s gangster quota quickie from Warner, with Rocky as a tough crook being screwed over by his former ally Humphrey Bogart. But the focus is instead on the relationship with Jerry who looks out for the best interests of the kids (to whom the title refers), and by the end Rocky must make a decision which, to a Depression era audience, would have been quite inspiring. Cagney also gives Rocky a moral grounding which has the audience sympathising with him from start to finish.
Overall a decent crime story with a message about the kind of courage that is not "heroics and bravado", and you can clearly see its influence on modern characterisation, but perhaps this means the novelty is lost to today's audience.
One of the best of its type, "Angels with Dirty Faces" epitomizes the
"gangster" and "juvenile delinquent" pictures of the 1930s (and 1940s).
These are the films showing how unfortunate circumstances turn young
men into hardened criminals. It's the "Nature vs. Nurture" argument.
And, don't waste any time wondering about this film's stance - the
title says it all - if you rub that dirty criminal's face hard enough,
you'll find a hidden Angel.
This is the case with tough guy James Cagney (as Rocky Sullivan), who landed in reform school for stealing, and was seduced into a life of crime. It may be too late for Cagney, but not for the younger generation of dirty-faced angels known as "The Dead End Kids", who worship the charismatic gangster. At least, that's the way scarred priest Pat O'Brien (as Jerry Connolly) sees things. Father O'Brien, who escaped Cagney's fate, wants salvation for the little tough guys.
Cagney's courageous, shoulder-rolling turn as "Rocky" is entrancing; absolutely, he deserved a "Best Actor" award - which the "on target" in the 1930s New York Film Critics delivered. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the classic line-up of "Dead End Kids" - Billy Halop as "Soapy", Bobby Jordan as "Swing", Leo Gorcey as "Bim", Gabriel Dell as "Pasty", Huntz Hall as "Crab", and Bernard Punsly as "Hunky" - are a symphony of spitting, smoking, and (mostly) smacked upside the head young punks.
The memorable Warner Brothers supporting cast includes rheumy-eyed lawyer Humphrey Bogart (as James Frazier), sultry Ann Sheridan (as Laury Ferguson), and perfectly cast Frankie Burke (as a young James Cagney). "Social Consciousness"- raising films can often trip over themselves, so don't watch this one in the wrong frame of mind.
********* Angels with Dirty Faces (11/24/38) Michael Curtiz ~ James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Billy Halop, Humphrey Bogart
I'd always heard about how great an actor James Cagney was, but had never seen any of his films. So I decided to rent this one from the local video store. After watching it I was astounded at how great an actor he is. This has to be his defining movie. Cagney plays a very believable gangster named Rocky Sullivan and I think his performance alone could have made this movie good. He had a screen presence that very few actors, other than say John Wayne or Clint Eastwood have had. His performance combined with an excellent script, superb direction and great supporting performances, make for a movie that defines excellence in film-making from the golden age of cinema. If you want to see a James Cagney movie or just want to watch an old black and white classic, then this is the one to get!
My rating: 10.0/10
My opinion on the film:
Michael Curtiz's Angels with Dirty Faces is an old-school gangster picture that not only was superbly directed and probably even better acted, but plot-wise it was flawless and unbelievably thrilling.
The movie starts with a flashback that would become very significant for the development of the main character, a ruthless but seemingly amiable criminal with an unpredictable behavior. Rocky Sullivan is the name of this character, which was played by James Cagney, and his relationship with an old childhood friend (played by Pat O'Brien), who has become a priest, served as the center for the moral content of the story.
The part of the story which focused on the gangster world was quite compelling as well. Humphrey Bogart and George Bancroft were the actors who played the backstabbing criminal partners of Rocky's. Each one of these characters had its own moments to shine, though not once was Cagney's masterful performance overshadowed by any of them. He was electric and menacing.
The shootout sequence was magnificent, and though it may be seen as the climax, it only served as a prelude for what was to come after. The final 20 minutes or so were deeply poignant and emotive.
This was a film about friendship, redemption, about the consequences of our actions, and also about making the right choices in life. And the fact that it was such an entertaining movie made it even better. I loved it.
One of the things I love most about Angels with Dirty Faces is that
proposes the age old idea of a person's entire destiny being defined by
one single event. The fact that Jerry (Pat O'Brien) could run faster
than his childhood friend Rocky (James Cagney) while being chased by
the police for a petty crime, would determine the paths they would take
in life. If only Rocky could climb over that fence, things would have
been so much different.
I'm a huge fan of the Warner Bros gangster movies of the 1930's, and Angels with Dirty Faces is probably the most classic of these movies In that it gets referenced and spoofed most in popular culture. These films deal with social issues, many of which are still relevant today. When I hear current news stories about crime and social issues, I often find myself thinking "They dealt with that in an old 30's crime/gangster film". Angels with Dirty Faces is no exception. Rocky Sullivan was never truly a criminal, but his stay at a reformatory for his petty crime turned him into one. However Pat O'Brien's role of Father Jerry Connolly presents an incredibly stark contrast with today's common place media reports of priests molesting boys. I find it fascinating to see a movie in which a member of clergy is presented as someone who is treated with the utmost respect and entirely trustworthy, of course this being an attempt to appease the Legion of Decency.
The Dead End Kids give Cagney an element to his performance few other actors would rarely get the chance to express. Cagney delivers what I consider to be the third best performance of his career (after White Heat and Yankee Doodle Dandy). However for most other actors, this performance would rank as their best performance; Cagney is just that phenomenal here. Humphrey Bogart also appears in a pre stardom supporting role. Despite only appearing in several scenes he nearly upstages Cagney with his enigmatic screen presence.
Michael Curtiz is undoubtedly one of the greatest craftsmen of Hollywood's golden age (after all, in this same year he directed one of the most perfect things ever created, The Adventures of Robin Hood). The final climatic scene of Angels with Dirty Faces alone is a masterpiece of cinematography. Here Curtiz creates a criminal underworld which is hard not to get sucked into. We might not want to emulate gangsters, but we can't help but be fascinated by them.
I didn't know much about this movie when I watched this. I had heard of the Humphrey Bogart, but not James Cagney. Although the movie was made in the 30s, the plot is something that could be of a movie that was just released in the 80s, 90s, or now. This is truly Cagney's movie, and he steals every scene that he's in. As a viewer, you can't help but cheer for him. I feel that his main love interest isn't really fleshed out. We learn that she comes from a troubled past, but not much more. A few scenes that stand out are the pharmacy assassination attempt, and obviously the well-known scene where the priest asks something of Rocky that he doesn't want to give.
In my mind, there is no title more apt for this film than "Angels with
Dirty Faces." Every person has a little bit of good in them; they just
might not display it until the time arises. We also do a lot of fun and
daring things growing up. We learn from them and move forward, and this
movie beautifully depicts how people with similar childhoods can
diverge to live such different lives.
This movie truly demonstrates how important both our experiences and upbringing are in moulding our futures. Ruffians initially, people can become saintly priests or remain criminals. Despite their different paths, though, it is important to note people do not simply forget their pasts. The relationships we make throughout our lives do not simply diminish as time progresses; instead, we learn to value and cherish what we once had.
The world needs good people. To help with the injustices happening today and to nurture the next generations. Throughout Angels with Dirty Faces, we see a priest working tirelessly and honestly to support local youths, trying to ensure they learn proper morals and respect the world they live in. This movie shows a man fighting the good fight despite the world turning against him, and when his troublesome friend arrives, plans take a turn.
Watching this movie is a truly humbling experience. It's always nice to remember that there are good people out there who are willing to work and take the extra mile for humanity. Even the people you'd least expect can surprise you in the most dire situation.
I imagine this was a ground-breaking film in 1938. It features some
morally complex characters - Cagney as bad guy Rocky Sullivan who tries
to get out of his life of crime and Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan) as a
social worker whose feelings about Rocky soften over time. The fact
that there is some ambiguity seems to me the progression of film
becoming a means of showing moral complexity, a big shift from cinema's
early days when the "nickelodeons" were forums for light entertainment.
In any case in the film, Rocky and his friend Jerry (Pat O'Brien and William Tracy as a boy) grow up as toughs but Jerry changes his ways while Rocky goes to the penitentiary. When he gets out, he goes straight for a while but old ties drag him back in, courtesy of corrupt lawyer (Humphrey Bogart). The question is whether Rocky is really selfish or whether he cares about some of the rough street kids over whom he has developed a great influence because of his reputation.
The script and story are great and the acting is great from all the primaries. Really well worth a look.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For me, it's hard to separate James Cagney from the character he
created as Rocky Sullivan, the street wise punk who becomes a master
criminal in "Angels With Dirty Faces". It's one of his quintessential
roles, and one that sears itself into memory from the classic heyday of
Warner Brothers crime and gangster dramas. Watching it just once leaves
you thinking "Whaddya hear, whaddya say?" for days following; would
that a current film could leave such an impact.
The story follows the exploits of young hood Rocky after he takes the rap for a stockyard train car break in, while buddy Jerry (Pat O'Brien) high tails it on a quicker pair of legs. A montage of scenes depicts his graduation into a life of crime, making a name for himself while the jail sentences get longer and longer. Finding himself back in the old Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, Rocky takes up with a local gang, the familiar wise cracking Dead End Kids. They come to idolize the man who makes a mockery of the law, even as he knocks a few of their heads under the watchful eye of Father Connelly, the young Jerry grown up as the local parish priest.
With Cagney and O'Brien heading the cast, it's easy to forget that another Warner heavyweight is part of the action. Humphrey Bogart usually took a back seat to fellow actors Cagney and Edward G. Robinson in the films they appeared in together. Bogie worked with Cagney three times, also supporting him in "The Oklahoma Kid", and sharing equal footing in another crime film, "The Roaring Twenties". Here, Bogie's character is Jim Frazier, a former Sullivan ally and now a top shelf lawyer for crime boss Mac Keefer (George Bancroft). Both run afoul of Rocky's temper and allegiance to friend Father Jerry, even as the priest threatens to expose the whole lot of them for the corrupt criminals they are.
Also turning in a fine but very brief performance is the lovely Ann Sheridan; her best bit comes early when she gets her revenge on Rocky for a childhood torment. She comes to grow fond of Rocky, but their relationship is not enough to keep him out of trouble.
I get a kick out of studying the different styles of gun play in both Western and gangster films. Cowboy Wild Bill Elliott usually "threw" his six shooter in the direction he was firing, while characters like the Lone Ranger usually just aimed and fired. Cagney has perhaps the most manic style in film, with a wild pumping motion as he lets the opposition have it.
As usually found in the Warner Brother movies of the era, civic and moral dilemmas are generally solved with right winning out in the end. As Rocky prepares to walk the last mile with Father Jerry by his side, he's challenged to find "the kind of courage born in heaven". The camera work and lighting is exemplary in those final minutes, as Jerry implores Rocky to take a final courageous stand. As Rocky's face sneeringly appears dead on into the camera for one last time, it's followed shortly after by his anguished cries for pardon and escape from death. Rocky dies a "yellow rat", his execution leaving a question mark for the viewer to provide his own interpretation. If you can suppress a tear for the condemned Rocky Sullivan at this point, the film hasn't worked it's magic on you.
"Angels With Dirty Faces" is one of my all time favorites, and a must see for Cagney and Dead End Kids fans. The young toughs usually found themselves in some fairly sappy adventures, and the films in which they starred generally fail to satisfy. Here however, they're great in a support role, and get their comeuppance more than once at the hands of a master. That's why they're more than willing in the end to accompany Father Jerry when he says - "OK fellas, let's go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn't run as fast as I could."
James Cagney first portrayed a gangster in "Public Enemy" and began to create an indelible screen image as a tough guy, which endured despite occasional forays into lighter fare like "Footlight Parade" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." In the late 1940's, he took his gangster image into middle age and to the edge of madness in "White Heat." But his portrayal of Rocky Sullivan in "Angels with Dirty Faces" is the perfect embodiment of James Cagney, the screen's peerless tough guy. Cocky, arrogant, remorseless, Cagney's Rocky is an iconic portrayal of the 1930's gangster. Despite great support from Pat O'Brien, Anne Sheridan, and Humphrey Bogart, the film is Cagney's show, although he is off the screen much of the time. As the boy who did not run fast enough from a crime, was caught by the police, sent to reform school, and learned to be a criminal, Cagney dominates the film. He is the corrupt reflection of the O'Brien character, who was Rocky's boyhood friend, outran the police, and eventually became a priest. The film pits the two friends against each other in adulthood for the minds and souls of a group of young boys, who are amusingly played by Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and the rest of the Dead End kids. The film builds to a powerful climax that is a classic scene in cinema history. The final powerful images and dialog will haunt the viewer and leave him or her to ponder whether or not Rocky had honored his lifelong friend's final request or not.
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