In the late 30s, gangster movies had begun to run their course. Catholic communities imposed restrictive moral production codes on movies, to prevent gangsters being portrayed as underworld heroes and figures to admire and respect. On the Hollywood studio lots, crime was no longer paying. Cue “Angels with Dirty Faces” as somewhat of a renaissance of the genre. Skillfully ambiguous and directed with careful moral duty by Michael Curtiz, this is a film that shows both sides of the story, and more importantly introduces social commentary to the mix, showing how criminals were produced by the hard knocks and tough breaks of life in city slums.
The opening scene of the film sets the stage. A camera wanders around an overcrowded, dirty, poverty-ridden slum, and eventually finds focus on two friends, Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly, products of their environment. They decide to rob a train carriage, and are forced to flee from the police. Jerry, manages to evade capture, while Rocky is caught and detained. Here our two friends part ways, and this one quirk of fate offers up two completely different paths. Rocky is institutionalised and we are shown by way of montage how his path to adulthood is full of crime and violence, while his friend Jerry finds God and decides to use his freedom to try and prevent kids ending up like Rocky. When they meet again 15 years later they are essentially opposites, but still retain a friendship and mutual respect. The film makes a statement here and shows that a single break can change the path of someone’s life forever, and is something which sets it apart from other films of the genre and era. Rather than a criminal being “born bad”, this film shows us that it is the cards dealt to us which shape our future, and was an important step towards appeasing the imposed religious moral codes.
As the plot unfolds, Rocky (James Cagney) makes decisions the only way he knows how – a result of a lifetime of imprisonment – while Jerry (played by Cagney’s real life pal Pat O’Brien) tries to stop a gang of kids (acting troupe “the Dead-End kids“) from entering a life of crime and repeating the cycle. The kids look up to and admire Rocky, and his behavior only serves to cement this admiration, much to the chagrin of Father Connolly. The incredibly moody and ambiguous “last mile” finale of the film though brings redemption, as Rocky makes a self-sacrificing decision which could the children change their ways.
James Cagney is mind-blowingly awesome here. In a fairly melodramatic film, Cagney’s performance stands out as incredibly realistic and naturalistic, as he fleshes out Rocky with physical tics, unique poise and posture, and a rapid delivery of speech. He lends Rocky a charismatic, roguish charm, and despite being a ruthless criminal, you cannot help but like him.
O’Brien is also solid as the Priest who wants to make a difference. The real-life rapport between Cagney and O’Brien carries over into their scenes together, and the tear shed by O’Brien towards the end of the film shows a highly skilled actor at work, enhancing what is already a very moving and emotional scene.
The supporting cast are also all excellent. Bogart operates well in a role not typical for him (a cowardly backstabbing lawyer), Ann Sheridan plays the sassy, beautiful, street-smart Laury Martin to perfection, and “The Dead-End Kids” all manage their roles honourably. Make no bones about it though, this is Cagney’s show, and probably one of his best. I think many fans would agree that in “Angels”, Cagney was doing Brando nearly 20 years before Brando did himself.
While the film is an outstanding and entertaining example of gangster films and film-noir, it elevates itself even further above genre with powerful, yet subtly written social critique and a show-stopping performance by Cagney. Highly recommended.