Whaddya hear, whaddya say ~ Jimmy Cagney as Rocky Sullivan
If he hadn’t been on the stage and screen, it’s easy to get the sense that James Cagney, born and bred on the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan could have easily been a gangster. And it’s true that in films like Public Enemy and White Heat he embodied gangsters for ensuing generations solidifying his own legend.
Angles with Dirty Faces features another stellar performance as Rocky Sullivan, but what makes it truly unique are the intertwining worlds of faith and crime that meet and ultimately provide the major conflict in the narrative. It’s at these crosswords — the moral fabric of the film — where things get fascinating and to understand those things it’s necessary to see where Angel with Dirty Faces opens.
Two young hoodlums get caught in the act of snitching from a train car and in the ensuing chase one gets nabbed by the cops while the other slips away from their clutches to live another day. This succinct scene is a fitting reflection of all that happens thereafter. The one fellow will grow up to be the notorious gangster extraordinaire Rocky Sullivan who will be at odds with the authorities from his first moments in juvie to his final days.
Meanwhile, Jerry (Pat O’Brien) becomes a local priest who makes it his life’s work to reform the young men in the community who are more than likely destined for the life of Rocky and his fellow gangsters. Through a certain amount of kindness and quiet strength, he attempts to mold the boys through constructive activities like basketball, choir, and other extracurriculars. However, the bad boys (the real life Dead End Kids ensemble, less actors than personified hellraisers) are not quite swayed by his regimen, more content rough-housing, causing mayhem, and idolizing their rebellious hero the great Rocky Sullivan.
When he finally gets out of his stint in prison, Rocky has some choice words for his crooked lawyer (Humphrey Bogart) who hands over a load of cash to save his neck although he’s not looking to be swindled. But although he continues to have his hand in the local corruption and crime scenes, Rocky still maintains his ties with his old friend while renting a room from the girl he used to rib, the now stunning Laury Martin (Ann Sheridan). Here the core relationship between Rocky and Jerry becomes paramount as Jerry vows to tackle corruption in the city with the help of a local paper, even if his old buddy gets in the way.
So Jerry begins his full-fledged crusade against vice because he sees it as a threat to his parish — made up of the impressionable boys in his stead. But just as crucial is the boy’s idol worship, namely of Rocky. This is Jerry’s final goal to bring their idol tumbling down and it doesn’t involve simply destroying the aura surrounding a gangster — it involves two old friends making one final promise. The crime syndicate is thrown into an uproar as Rocky is wanted for murder, cornered, and finally apprehended. Oh how the mighty have fallen, although he’s not about to go yellow because that’s the only thing he has left–his own bullish sense of moxie.
Still, Jerry asks him to imbue a different kind of courage (Not the courage or heroics of bravado but the kind that you, me, and God know about). And as the electric chair looms in front of Rocky as an arbiter of justice, you could easily make the claim that this is his modern-day cross with him as the martyr. But this gets into the ultimate dilemma where everything begins to break down. Either Rocky committed his final act out of undying affection for an old friend (and not remorse) or more feebly still he was not repentant at all but was, on the contrary, legitimately groveling in the face of death.
The first time seeing this film I mistakenly mistook Rocky’s actions as heroic in the end because as our protagonist that’s what we like to project onto him but it simply does not line up. The way he’s so belligerent before breaking down as he gets ready to meet his maker. The way the priest looks on with tears in his eyes, newspaper men too awestruck to jot down a single note. I mistook Cagney’s astonishing acting for Rocky’s own showmanship. However, the more astounding conclusion is that Rocky is hardly high and mighty in the end. His rough veneer is equally easy to shatter as his being is brought to the ultimate low, death.
It reflects the moral ambiguity of man that these angels with dirty faces are not in the singular sense but the sum of man in his plurality. We are all prone to evil just as we are all capable of good. But we can hardly save ourselves just as we are not always wholly good or wholly evil. The best we can do is make the way better for other people. If this film is any indication sometimes it’s extremely difficult to parse through the differences between the altruism versus the evil versus just plain cowardice.
Films about friends on diverging paths have continued to exist from Cry of the City to Mystic River but Angels with Dirty Faces is arguably one of the most compelling. Once again, Cagney steals the film with his usual no holds barred approach. It electrifies the screen like very few others, making Angels with Dirty Faces an undisputed gangster classic and one of his very best.
Furthermore, the often discounted Michael Curtiz shows his versatility with the foremost of Warner Bros. winning craftsmen including directors William A. Wellman and Raoul Walsh. Notably, each man paired with Cagney with great results, because, after all, he is without question the king of the gangsters.