I’ve concluded that I needed to be somewhat familiar with the gangster genre to properly appreciate Angels With Dirty Faces. The first time I saw it, to my slight shame, my reaction was tepid. But when I watched it again last weekend, I thought it was wonderful. The difference? I’d finally seen Cagney’s other gangster films (and Bogart’s and Robinson’s). I understood the context much better and suddenly the film seemed like the masterpiece I knew it was supposed to be.
It’s a post-code gangster film, meaning that movies could no longer seem to be celebrating the gangster as hero. It’s a limitation that put an end to a particularly kind of film, but as often happens with limitations, it also forces creativity in a new direction. It allows Angels With Dirty Faces to explore the affect that glorification of gangsters has on young kids, but also contrasting that glamour with the more ordinary and unexciting, but wholly transformative virtue of simply doing the right thing. But it is also a story of friendship and redemption, not to mention a good excuse to watch gangsters shoot each other up.
Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly (played by Frankie Burke and William Tracy), two poor Irish kids who grew up together in New York City, try to rob a freight train. But they are discovered in the act and both try to flee. Jerry gets away, but Rocky is caught and sent to juvenile detention. This is the beginning of a life of crime and he becomes the famous Rocky Sullivan (now played by James Cagney), a headline-making gangster who’s constantly in and out of prison. But Jerry becomes a priest (Pat O’Brien), who lives in the same neighborhood where he grew up and is trying to help the kids, especially by keeping them out of a life of petty crime that so often leads to hardened crime.
When Rocky is released from his latest prison sentence, he returns to the old neighborhood and is reunited with Jerry for the first time in years. He is also after his money, which he stole before his prison term, and which was supposed to be kept safe for him by a crooked and weasely lawyer, Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), who does not exactly welcome Rocky’s return because he’s set himself up in business with another crooked mob leader, Mac Keefer (George Bancroft).
The Dead End Kids play the group of delinquents that Father Jerry is trying to save, but who develop a case of hero worship for Rocky, who enjoys their adulation. As Rocky muscles his way into Mac and Frazier’s business and even controls the police, Father Jerry can’t, in good conscience, turn a blind eye to Rocky’s doings, no matter how great their friendship, and he warns Rocky that he’s going to fight corruption, for the sake of the kids. He never blames Rocky, though. He believes it’s because Rocky couldn’t run as fast as he could and that he could have been in the same position.
James Cagney plays Rocky Sullivan like a paradox. He’s cocky and enjoys the glamour of his position. He likes to read about himself on the front page (as do the kids), loves the wealth and the power and definitely the thrill of violence. He’s utterly ruthless when dealing with fellow gangsters, but there’s another side of him. He’s unshakably loyal to Jerry. Underlying the cockiness, he respects Jerry.
Some people have commented that Pat O’Brien is solid, but overshadowed by Cagney, but I think that’s the point. Rocky is supposed to be more exciting than Father Jerry. That’s why all the kids want to be like him. Living a decent life and doing the right thing doesn’t look like much fun in comparison. That is why Father Jerry is determined to expose crime as un-heroic and the easy way out.
Spoilers! Which is also why, at the end, Father Jerry asks Rocky to pretend to be a coward just before he dies on the electric chair. If the kids see that he’s actually a coward, then the glamour will fade and they can view crime for what it really is. And fundamentally, Rocky must agree with him. He admitted earlier to Jerry that he’s taken the easy way out, that Jerry’s way was harder, and, as DVD Verdict writes, for Rocky to choose to throw away his whole reputation (which is all that he has left, “Rocky [must have] thought about his life and truly found it lacking.” He ultimately agrees with Jerry and makes the sacrifice, throwing his reputation and his pride out the window and plays the coward. It’s an incredible ending to a film, making Rocky the unlikely angel of the title.
There is some question about whether Rocky really pretended to be a coward (because he tells Jerry he won’t do it) or if he simply fell apart for real and Jerry just thought he was doing it for him. I’m more inclined to think Rocky did it deliberately When you look at the last shot of his face before he is put on the electric chair (which we only see in shadows), he has a look of steely determination. He does not look like a man who’s about to fall apart. And it jives with his previous, contradictory performance of a gangster who’s also secretly self-aware, who can still recognize goodness when he sees it.
Angels With Dirty Faces is a film chock full of great talent. Ann Sheridan is still at the beginning of her career (she really hit it in 1940) and plays Rocky’s sweetheart, a sort of reformed fallen woman who falls again. The only problem is that her character disappears in the last part of the film and one can’t help but wonder what happens with her.
Humphrey Bogart is also in pre-star mode. I used to wonder how Warner Bros. could have relegated him to supporting roles for so long, but in truth, he’s actually pretty good at it. As the lawyer, Frazier, he’s weasely and craven, not a man of action, who sweats under pressure, shifty and greedy. It’s not a role you think of with Bogart, but he plays it well. He’s not at all like the charismatic leading man of the 1940s. He knows how to inhabit his roles without overplaying them or trying to compete with the other stars. He’s understated and subtle. The more of his pre-star roles I see, the more I seem to appreciate him as an actor.