Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Directed by Michael Curtiz
Cinematography Sol Polito

Angels with Dirty Faces is a 1938 American crime film directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers. It stars James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, The Dead End Kids, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, and George Bancroft. The screenplay was written by John Wexley and Warren Duff, and is based on the story by Rowland Brown. The film chronicles the rise and fall of the notorious gangster William “Rocky” Sullivan. After spending three years in prison for armed robbery, Rocky intends to collect $100,000 from his co-conspirator, Jim Frazier. All the while, Father Jerry Connolly tries to prevent a group of youths from falling under Rocky’s influence.

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Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and George Bancroft in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

When Cagney was offered Angels with Dirty Faces, his agent was “convinced” that he would never agree to play the role of an “abject coward” being dragged to his execution. Cagney, however, was enthusiastic about the chance to play Rocky. He saw it as an opportunity to prove that he had a broad acting range that extended beyond “tough guy” roles. To play Rocky, Cagney drew on his memories of growing up in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, New York.

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His main inspiration was a drug-addicted pimp who stood on a street corner all day hitching his trousers, twitching his neck, and repeating: “Whadda ya hear! Whadda ya say!” Those mannerisms came back to haunt Cagney, who later wrote in his autobiography: “I did those gestures maybe six times in the picture. That was over thirty years ago – and the impressionists have been doing me doing him ever since.”Cagney’s other inspiration was his childhood friend, Peter “Bootah” Hessling, who was convicted of murder and “sent to the electric chair” on July 21, 1927. The night Bootah was executed, Cagney was “playing in a Broadway show” and “wept” upon hearing of his friend’s death.

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Pat O’Brien was cast as Father Jerry Connolly, Rocky’s childhood friend. O’Brien had been a “contract player” with Warner Bros. since 1933, and eventually left the studio in 1940 following a dispute over the terms of the renewal of his contract. He and Cagney first met in 1926 in Asbury Park, New Jersey. O’Brien was a “lonely, young” actor “playing in a stock company”. He heard that a stage play, Women Go on Forever by Mary Boland, was coming to Asbury Park on its way to Broadway. Wanting to meet the “star of the show”, he went backstage after a performance and met Cagney for the first time.  O’Brien and Cagney became great friends, and remained so until O’Brien’s death in 1983. (Cagney died in 1986).

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By May, 1938, the Dead End Kids had already starred in Samuel Goldwyn‘s Dead End; as well as Warner’s Crime School  (both with Humphrey Bogart). They had signed a two-year contract with Goldwyn in 1937, but he sold the contract to Warner Bros. the same year because of their behavior on the set of Dead End; in one instance, they “jumped” Bogart and “stole his pants” while in another they crashed a truck into a sound stage. Bogart portrays the crooked lawyer Jim Frazier in Angels With Dirty Faces. German scholar Winfried Fluck described Bogart’s character, Jim Frazier, as an “entirely negative” and “thoroughly bad figure”, in “contrast” with Cagney’s antihero.

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An absolute classic

8/10
Author: The_Void from Beverley Hills, England
3 January 2005

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.

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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.

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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.

Golden-age film offers great gangster yarn and metaphysical struggle

10/10
Author: Sloke from Greenwich, CT, USA
18 March 2000

“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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Cagney Heads Impressive Cast

8/10
Author: ccthemovieman-1 from United States
29 October 2005

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.

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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.

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