Gangster films are one of my favorites genres. I’ve given them short shrift in this feature. It’s time to make up for that with one of Jimmy Cagney’s finest films, Angels With Dirty Faces. We’re on a first name basis after all these years. I don’t think Cagney minds: he’s never once mushed a grapefruit in my face or shot me while eating a chicken leg. Of course, it helps that he died in 1986. RIP.
One thing I dig about old Warner Brothers movies is the unreal theatricality of films shot on the backlot. It presents a vivid contrast to the gritty realism of many of their stories. This contrast is an important component of Angels With Dirty Faces.
Like many films of the time, Angels borrows from other sources. The whole two boys grow up and one becomes a criminal and the other a saint thing is as old as The Bible. That’s a book I rarely cite but Jimmy Cagney as Rocky Sullivan and Pat O’Brien as Father Jerry Connelly are the Cain and Abel of depression era America.
We see the two friends as kids committing petty larceny. Cagney gets caught, O’Brien gets away to play Knute Rockne and win one for the Gipper.
Cagney grows up to be a powerful gangster with Humphrey Bogart and silent movie star George Bancroft as partners.
Cagney spends a stretch in prison then returns to his old New York neighborhood to live. He reconnects with his childhood pals O’Brien and Ann Sheridan. He also meets the Dead End Kids who later became the Bowery Boys. Their low budget films are one of my guilty pleasures. I used to watch them every weekend during the rabbit ears era of television. What’s not to love about Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall?
Things are not as sweet for Cagney with his criminal business partners. They’re out to screw him, so he screws them back.
I’m hoping to revive Jimmy/Rocky’s stock greeting: “Whaddya hear? Whaddya say?” It was stolen by Paulie Walnuts in The Sopranos, so you know it’s cool.
The last act of Angels With Dirty Faces is full of rat-a-tat-tat action including Cagney holding Father Jerry hostage. He’s eventually convicted of murder and is sentenced to death.
The burning question of the last act of the movie is: Will Rocky Sullivan turn yellow when seated in the electric chair? Father Jerry wants him to do it for the urchins, so they won’t become flashy gangsters like their hero. That’s all I’ve got for you because the feature is called Pulp Fiction, not pulp spoilers.
Here’s Rocky walking the last mile with Father Jerry:
The acting in Angels With Dirty Faces is fantastic. Cagney is a bundle of nervous energy, especially when cutting up with the future Bowery Boys. O’Brien radiates calm and authority. Sheridan is as gorgeous and spunky as ever. Bogie has a thankless role as a walking plot device, but he gives his character some dimension. The Dead End Kids get all the laughs in the movie. I wanted to be one of them when I was twelve. Should I start calling myself Slip Mahoney? Nah, I prefer Shecky.
Angels With Dirty Faces is directed by future Oscar winner Michael Curtiz and shot by Sol Polito. Sol was the only thing polito about the movie: Cagney and the kids are ruffians. Five screenwriters worked on Angels but it’s the uncredited ones who made the movie a classic: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur of Front Page fame. They were script doctors with a magic touch.
Grading Time: This has long been one of my favorite Cagney films, so I give Angels With Dirty Faces 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A. I didn’t have to grade on the curve like last time. I still have Whiplash from that…
Let’s move on to the posters. We begin with side-by-side 3-sheets.
Here’s the quad poster from woody old England:
It’s time to second line with movie snacks. Where are we going? To the lobby, that’s where.
In these lobby cards, Cagney holds a gat except when he has his arm around Ann Sheridan. She was one of my first celebrity crushes. I still hate the nickname the studio gave her, The Oomph Girl. Ann wasn’t crazy about it either.
Now that we’ve seen Rocky Sullivan hold his best friend hostage, let’s visit the proverbial trailer park:
Angels With Dirty Faces hasn’t been on Noir Alley but I have the late great Robert Osborne’s intro:
The last word goes to Los Lobos: