James Cagney was one of the great actors of his time, and for all-time. He had a scowl that would make Jack Nicholson tremble; mannerisms and body language that seem to float on air; an expressive face that easily communicated equal charm and nastiness; and a toughness all his own. He may have been short on height, but his presence on the screen was bigger than life. He definitely excelled in gangster pictures, and one of his very best was 1938’s Angels with Dirty Faces.
He stars as Rocky Sullivan, along with Pat O’Brien as Jerry Connelly, childhood friends who grew up and committed crimes together in the same kind-of rough neighborhood. They’re still really good friends, but their paths have put a strain on the friendship, considering the fact Rocky still remains a criminal, and Jerry, now a reformed priest. Things further complicate the two of them when a group of young street punks (The Dead End Kids) come into the mix, as Rocky takes them under his wing, but Jerry doesn’t want them corrupted by his influence. As Jerry becomes the new target of Rocky’s corrupt lawyer Jim Frazier (Humphrey Bogart in an early, lecherous role) after he tries to rally against the city’s bad domination, Rocky steps in, and after a siege that leaves him injured, he’s back in custody. In the end, he is sentenced to death and Jerry pleads with him to repent his sins and ask God for forgiveness, in which Rocky refuses, especially because he doesn’t want to seem like a coward to the young punks. However, as soon as he reaches the electric chair, he turns heel and in fact dies a coward. In this case, Rocky had a heart after all. Jerry now takes the youths back home with him, to a better future.
As much as I loved the film, it does have a few flaws. There’s Ann Sheridan as the grown-up version of a young girl that Rocky and Jerry used to tease. Her character isn’t as developed as she should be. She kind of just there, but she tries to make the most of it. Then there’s the ending. It’s obvious that the Production Code interfered and tampered the with impact, where you had Rocky suddenly begging for mercy. That’s a little out of character for the hard-edged and charming criminal you actually root for throughout the film. I guess he had to have a soul, but it was at the last minute. And I have to admit, I found the Dead End Kids rather annoying, with their antics, which get old pretty fast, but they do have a reason to be in the film, so I can’t fault them for that. That’s it for my little nitpicks.
The Blu-ray from Warner Archive is solid. It contains all the special features from the original classic gangsters DVD collection, such as Leonard Maltin Hosts Warner Night at the Movies 1938 with newsreel, musical short Out Where the Stars Begin, Porky and Daffy cartoon and theatrical trailers; featurette Angels with Dirty Faces: Whaddya Hear? Whaddya Say?; commentary by film historian Dana Polan; and audio-only radio adaptation with Cagney and O’Brien.
Despite its minor flaws, there are amazing performances (especially Cagney), the chemistry between Cagney and O’Brien (it was their sixth film together after all), vivid action, and searing direction by director by Michael Curtiz, that makes Angels with Dirty Faces a seminal gangster classic, one that deserves to be in every classic film lover’s collection.