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Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)


Talk about a memorable title
Talk about a memorable title

Genre: Drama Crime Film Noir

Starring: James Cagney (The Public EnemyYankee Doodle Dandy), Pat O'Brien (Some Like It HotRagtime)

Directed By: Michael Curtiz (Captain BloodCasablanca)

Overview: Rocky and Jerry are best friends. Rocky grows up to be a criminal, Jerry as a priest. Now that Rocky’s out of the bighouse, he’s back in his old neighborhood to make friends and settle some old business, as well as to reacquaint himself with his best friend, whose personal mission is to help the local wayward boys.

I shudder a little at the thought of seeing James Cagney on film. There’s a part of me that just knows he’s going to be in something awful. I’ve seen him in The Public Enemy, a rather dramatic and expository condemnation of 30s organized crime. I’ve seen him in Footlight Parade, a Busby Berkeley epic-choreography musical production. He’s been in tons more, but I just can’t bring myself to see them in a hurry. That’s because whenever I see James Cagney on screen, he has such a colossal presence and incredible skill that I fear the next movie I see him in will kick the impression I have of him right out from under me. Without mincing words, I’ve not seen another actor exude anywhere near the majestic aura that James Cagney does. With bated breath I watched Angels with Dirty Faces, number 115 on the 1001 list and number 3 for myself. Cagney, a man who starred in a song and dance musical that impressed me to no end, here playing a low-down dirty mug of a Noir gangster... why I had any fears whatsoever is beyond me. Cagney’s a powerhouse that more people need to discover.

If that's not Noir enough, you're just wrong.

Angels With Dirty Faces opens with a couple of friends in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, poking fun at the pigtailed girls down on the street below them. These poor kids, Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly, act out in various ways, including petty theft. One day Rocky and Jerry are stealing pens from a traincar and get chased by the cops. Jerry gets away while Rocky takes it like a man. A quick montage later and we see that Rocky’s youth has turned into a criminal adulthood, one that has earned him some fame in the newspapers. When Rocky gets out of jail this time around, his plan is to go back to his neighborhood and earn some dough, most notably from racketeering and the $100,000 that Rocky’s old partner and lawyer friend is holding for him when he gets out. When Rocky reunites with Jerry, he’s impressed to find his old best friend is now a priest, and one whose mission it is to help the neighborhood’s wayward boys stay on the straight and narrow. Rocky also takes a shine to the kids, impressing them with his slick gangster style, quickly becoming an idol of theirs. The kids themselves are pulled in both directions: the easy money that comes from Rocky’s life, or the righteous one offered by being good. 

Though the story’s main plot is obviously a straight-forward morality play showing the children both sides of society - the noble versus the infamous - we have in Angels with Dirty Faces something really original. First of all is the absolutely glorious performance of James Cagney as fearless, suave, well-dressed Rocky. The gorgeous Ann Sheridan plays the girl-now-grown-up exceptionally. Then there’s a young Humphrey Bogart still early in his career. Here he plays Rocky’s lawyer, James Frazier, in a rare role as out-of-his-league-chump. It’s an interesting role for someone who went on to make so much slick Sam Spade Noir. Story wise, the subplot where Rocky tries to get back into ‘the life’ that was promised him is immersive. His character shines as he faces connivers and double-dealers on their turf. As favourite moments go, I found what I expected to be a short basketball game turned out to be a genuinely entertaining extended scene where we watch the kids play dirty on the court and see how alternating refs Jerry and Rocky deal with the kids.

From beginning to end, Angels With Dirty Faces - a terrific title, might I add - is entertaining, fun and full of larger-than-life characters that jump out of the screen to deliver a classic Noir in the infancy of its genre.

Bogey and Cagney in the same shot. It's like two earthquakes colliding, like seriously.
Bogey and Cagney in the same shot. It's like two earthquakes colliding, like seriously.

Performance: 9 Cinematography: 8 Script: 8 Plot: 8 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 84% (Glorious Grime)

I had the pleasure of experiencing this one with a daring friend. Much to my surprise, when offered a large choice of films both classic and contemporary, he replied "I want out of the usual comfort zone of MTV-style editing and modern special FX. I want a movie from the 30s. Help me pick something." Lucky thing Angels With Dirty Faces was the film we selected, since it was a wonderful gem and one I can safely recommend to anyone, whether familiar or not to movies of the Golden Age of cinema.

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Putzing around the site, I found this review.


And I have to say, I agree with you re: Cagney 100%.


He's an actor who I had seen nothing from prior to my 1001 Movies experience, and now, he's easily one of my favorites.  He's so dynamic, it's insane.  He did everything.  I love musicals, but I'm not a huge fan of Busby Berkeley - needless to say, Footlight Parade is my favorite Berkeley BECAUSE OF CAGNEY.  He epitomizes "Larger than Life."


I forgot that Bogie was in this... man I need to rewatch this...

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