Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Genre: Gangster and Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 37 min.

Release Date: November 26th, 1938 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Michael Curtiz Actors: James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, George Bancroft, The Dead End Kids

 


 

“W

hat we don’t take, we ain’t got.” It’s the early ’30s, and Harding has just been nominated for President of the United States, though this has little bearing on William “Rocky” Sullivan and his pal Jerome “Jerry” Connelly, who occupy their time being young hooligans, quick to harass girls and steal from the local train yard. When their latest stunt finds them chased by the cops, Jerry escapes, but Rocky is sent to the Society for Juvenile Delinquents, which soon transitions into a spell at the Warrington Reform School, and then hard labor. Petty larceny gives way to assault and battery, running liquor, and eventually manslaughter charges, many of which result in three or four year sentences.

“Don’t be a sucker.” Living by his motto but remaining in a seemingly never-ending cycle of incarceration, Rocky strikes a deal with shady lawyer James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), who stashes away a tidy sum of money for the hoodlum for when he’s finally discharged from the State Penitentiary (after 15 years of varying forms of imprisonment). As an adult, Rocky (James Cagney) has remained tough, mentally and physically, and has quite the reputation as a gangster; but his longtime friend Jerry (Pat O’Brien) has completely reformed, now working as a priest at the local parish. When Rocky returns to his hometown, needing a place to stay while he conducts unfinished business, Jerry is more than happy to help him out. But that business involves collecting money from some very bad people, including mob boss Mac Keefer (George Bancroft), who isn’t keen on welcoming Rocky into the lucrative fold.

As a precursor to “Going My Way,” “Angels with Dirty Faces” features a rowdy gang of kids (movie troupe the Dead End Kids) desperately in need of supervision and instruction. And there’s a religious angle in the mix, though the wayward teens don’t immediately gravitate toward the moral high ground. Instead, they idolize Sullivan, whose criminal record and manipulative manners are far more appealing. The purpose of this distinct dichotomy of positive and negative role models is clear, which makes much of the reiteration tedious, including conversations about crooks and playing fair during a basketball match.

If the Dead End Kids – complete with their Three Stooges routines and slaphappy slapstick – weren’t involved, the movie could have moved more smoothly and featured a more focused message. But using the youths as an innocent – or only slightly corrupted – viewpoint (and for hero worship) to contrast Rocky’s inability to escape a life of villainy (or to reform) is not only obvious and redundant, it also takes away screentime from the more interesting players. In particular, Bogart as a slimy backstabber works quite nicely against Cagney’s dependable antihero. O’Brien is less amusing (ignoring his priesthood, which is too blunt to be effective), however, especially when he gives a monologue about the dangers of encouraging the Dead End Kids to follow a path of dishonesty.

The six youths become pawns in a number of Rocky’s schemes, but a significant portion of the film accommodates their standard schtick, including roughhousing and fast-paced verbal comedy – neither of which fit well with the film noir elements (or the brief love story involving Laury [Ann Sheridan], one of the young girls chivvied at the beginning, now all grown up). Additionally, Father Connelly’s war against the underworld and the grafters and the public officials in their pockets doesn’t feel legitimate; it’s too sudden and fueled by an unlikely collaboration of concerned citizens and the press. Still, there’s action, suspense, shootouts, and Cagney again revisiting his wholly convincing gangster persona, after having taken a break to star in the lighter fare of “Something to Sing About” and “Boy Meets Girl.” And the finale is unexpectedly potent in its themes (though heavy-handed in execution), contributing to the picture’s lasting power, its Best Director Oscar nomination for Michael Curtiz, and its original writing nomination for Rowland Brown.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10