Angels With Dirty Faces
Director: Michael Curtiz
“Whaddya’ hear whaddya’ say?”
One of the genre’s most renowned works, Angels With Dirty Faces is a classic gangster film which gives James Cagney one of his most memorable roles, and which makes a true attempt to present something different and take a new look at the role of gangsters in a post-prohibition society.
Released in 1938 and directed by Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy director Michael Curtiz, the film centres around Rocky Sullivan (Cagney), a life-long tough guy who has spent lift in and out of various prisons since childhood, and the story picks up following his latest prison release, having taken a fall for a $100,000 armed robbery so that his ‘associate’, a crooked lawyer called Jim Frazier (played by a young Humphrey Bogart) can set up a criminal outfit with the proceeds from their past endeavours, only to find himself double-crossed and eventually forced to blackmail his gang in order get his ‘cut’, setting him up for inevitable conflict amongst his former associates.
At the same time as trying to get back into the business, Sullivan reconnects with an old boyhood pal, Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien), who, as a boy, fooled around on the streets with Sullivan until an encounter with the police led to Sullivan being imprisoned for the very first time, while Connolly manages to escape arrest. Now a priest, ‘Father’ Connolly devotes himself to trying to keep young kids off of the streets and away from the criminal ilk roaming the city – including outfits like Sullivan’s. Connolly spends a lot of his time working with one particular group of boys (played by a group of child actors under the moniker of the ‘Dead End Kids’), who know all about Sullivan and who go on to develop a hero-like worship of him as he becomes a part of their world along with father Connolly. Whilst not keeping himself busy playing basketball with the kids or dealing with his new business partners, he also finds time to maintain a new love interest in the shape of a young landlady, Laury Martin (played by Ann Sheridan) who, along with Connolly, acts as a slightly bent moral compass for Sullivan, trying to keep him away from the trouble he inevitably faces as he moves back into the ranks of the mob.
The film focuses mainly on developing the relationship between Sullivan and the boys, as he gets himself back into the world of organised crime, while Connolly battles to keep them safe, ultimately leading to Connolly leading an all-out media campaign against organised crime in the city, with Sullivan forced to choose between loyalty to his outfit and loyalty to his friend. When he discovers that his partners are planning to assassinate Connolly, Sullivan makes his choice and finds himself involved in a dramatic shoot-out sequence and eventual standoff with the police. Only Connolly manages to talk him out of his situation and to accept the wrap for his wrongdoings.
Along with the relationship between Sullivan and the kids, the heart of the film rests in the conflict between Sullivan and Connolly. Their ever-changing relationship manages to be human, touching and, ultimately, tragic all in equal measure. Cagney and O’Brien are an excellent pairing and the real-life friendship between the two actors doubtless helped to bolster their respective performances (along with the fact that they had made multiple films together beforehand). O’Brien plays a true ‘good guy’ through and through – and pulls the part of well. His character comes across as sincere, passionate and, surprisingly, tough when he needs to be. Ann Sheridan’s performance is also a highlight, playing a resilient, tough-talking character who is quite unlike the more typical ‘gangster moll’ role that characterised many female actors in earlier gangster movies.
The film’s finest hour, and certainly the one for which it is best remembered, is the dramatic concluding scenes where Sullivan, having finally given himself up, is taken to the electric chair for his ultimate execution. Prior to going in, Connolly pleads with the notoriously tough Sullivan to put on an act of fear and terror as he takes his final steps, all so he can show the kids that even the toughest of men can crack and that a life of crime has but one ending. Sullivan relents, refusing to ‘turn yellow’, but as he is led to the chair, he breaks down in a dramatic display of terror and panic, begging to be allowed to live before he is dragged away and the switch is pulled, cutting him off-mid scream as the lights flicker dark to reflect the execution taking place off-screen. Whether Sullivan’s fear was real or an act put on for the sake of Father Jerry and the kids is left entirely up to the audience’s judgment. It’s a harrowing scene, and one of Cagney’s single best performances – a kind of foreshadowing of the dramatic ‘breakdown’ scene that he later displayed in 1949’s White Heat.
I myself have never quite definitively decided whether Sullivan’s terror was real or an act. Truth be told, Sullivan wasn’t quite the same level of ‘tough’ as some of Cagney’s other characters, mainly thanks to the character being more humanised than others, and so from that perspective it’s arguably the case that his fear was real. As Connolly puts it when speaking with the boys let down by the news of the execution, Sullivan was, in the end, just “a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”
I’ll go out on a limb here and say that on my initial viewing some time ago, I found the film to be less engaging than I had expected – aside from the excellent electric-chair scene – and that it rather paled in comparison with Cagney’s later efforts (namely White Heat and The Roaring Twenties), but repeated viewings have served to increase my opinion of it. That said, I maintain that the movie is less accomplished than either of the above two works (or The Public Enemy), because whilst it is not without its highlights, to my mind the film does somewhat ‘labour the point’ in how it tries to spread its message about the evils of organised crime. Whilst earlier gangster films were still definitively anti-crime and made their position in that regard clear (e.g. with the use of introductory title screens in Scarface and Little Caesar), Angels With Dirty Faces goes all-out in conveying this message, mainly by devoting a large amount of screen time to the relationship between Rocky Sullivan and the Dead End Kids. This does throw up some interesting points and memorable scenes – particularly in one fraught exchange between Sullivan and Connolly, (“What earthly good is it for me to teach that honesty is the best policy when all around they see that dishonesty is a better policy?”), but it does feel a bit heavy-handed in some regards, which is further bolstered by making Connolly a priest:
“Yes, Laury we both love him. I’ve loved him since we were kids, six years old. We worked together, fought together, stole together. Oh, I’m not blaming Rocky for what he is today. But for the grace of God, there walk I. I’d do anything for him, Laury. Anything in the world to help him. I’d give my life if I thought it would do any good, but it wouldn’t. You see Laury, there’s all those other kids, hundreds of them, in the streets and bad environment, whom I don’t want to see grow up like Rocky did. I can’t sacrifice them for Rocky. You see, Laury, they have lives too. I can’t throw them away. I can’t.”
We get it. Crime is bad. Not committing crime is good.
Arguably this is not the fault of the writers or filmmakers themselves, but rather a consequence of the political and social mood surrounding cinema at the time. Equally, if the relationship between Sullivan and the Kids was not established, then the electric-chair sequence at the end would not have been needed (or, in any event, would not have anywhere near as much of an effect), and so given the incredible impact of that final scene, arguably these criticisms are moot, in that the time spent developing the relationship paid off in the end as far as the quality of the film goes. Nevertheless, some slight tweaking might have helped somewhat – did we really need to devote a lengthy scene to showing Sullivan playing basketball with the kids, for example? Aside from the final shoot-out at the end, there isn’t as much ‘action’ in the film as there were in other gangster films of the time – whilst we know that Bogart and his bosses are involved in various rackets, we never really get much detail about exactly what it is that they do, beyond knowing that Bogart’s character helped set it up whilst Sullivan took the fall, that they operate out of a nightclub, and that a ‘black book’ of various political figures who are involved in this activity is maintained. Bogart himself is also surprisingly tame in his role as the crooked lawyer – yes he’s corrupt, crooked and a backstabber, but he doesn’t quite show the same sense of menace or evil that he would go on to show when playing a similar role in The Roaring Twenties. But this is probably more the result of having a lack of opportunity for his character’s developments, as the emphasis of the film is, ultimately, based around Sullivan’s relationship with the kids rather than with fellow gangsters.
With that in mind though, it could be argued that this difference in approach is what sets Angels With Dirty Faces aside from the other films of the time – rather than showing the standard ‘rise and fall’ of a single gangster the film instead focuses on showing the impact these gangsters can have on wider society – which was, ultimately, the purpose behind the making of many of these films in the first place.
Whichever way you look at it (and I expect many will look at it differently to me in this particular instance), Angels With Dirty Faces is an impressive piece of work and gives Cagney another career-defining performance which stands up against his other characters like Eddie Bartlett and Tom Powers (though Codie Jarratt is still a cut above them all…). It’s not quite top of the world, ma, but it still makes a fine go at it.
(PS: For those interested, there is also a very faithful radio adaption of the film, starring Cagney and O’Brien in their same roles, which is available on Audible and is well worth listening to.)