Gangster films blazed their way into the public consciousness in the depression era. There was something emboldening about watching on-screen tough guys like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson following through on their cocksure criminal ambitions. Even though crime doesn't pay, and these villains met their fates riddled with bullets, their confidence and swagger inspired the masses. Cagney had an on-screen intensity balanced by a fast-talking sense of comic timing, a dancer's grace, and a pugnacious spontaneity. He was a little big man, often shorter than most of his co-stars, but larger than life in his exuberant persona. The camera loved Cagney because there was no one else quite like him—a sensitive soul who took no crap from anyone; a stylized performer whose Lower East Side mannerisms were grounded in realism. Of all the studio-groomed movie stars, Cagney was something truly unique and special.
A song-and-dance man, Cagney ironically achieved fame playing the most ignoble of thugs in William Wellman's The Public Enemy (where he famously smashed a grapefruit into actress Mae Clarke's face). He was beloved for his effortless charisma, showing up his stock company co-stars. And the tough-guy gangster image stuck even as Cagney appeared in slapstick comedies, westerns, and war pictures. He even took a stab at playing a lawman in the enjoyable B movie 'G' Men. But the image stuck, and the image-consciousness of beloved bad guys gives resonance to the best of the Warner Bros. gangster films, Angels With Dirty Faces.
By the time Angels came along, Hollywood was forced to barter with the Production Code to produce moral minded films that eschewed the gangster iconography that was a bad influence on children. (Remember the opening scene in Brian De Palma's Scarface where Pacino waxes rhapsodic about seeing Bogart and Cagney movies as a kid?) Rocky Sullivan, the character James Cagney plays in Angels, embodies all the qualities we love about bad guys, and that's reflected by the Dead End Kids, the streetwise neighborhood teens who idolize him. Sullivan's fresh out of prison and rebuilding his place in the network of organized crime. The kids do their best to copy his gusto and swagger, despite the efforts of Sullivan's childhood friend Father Jerry Connolly (Pat O'Brien, a stalwart and robust cleric in the Fighting Irish mold) to get them to follow the straight and narrow.
When they were the same age as the Dead End Kids, Sullivan and Connolly were an incorrigible pair, thieving and raising hell together in the slums of New York. Angels is able to convey the Gangs of New York thesis that “America was made in the streets” in its opening scene where the two boys are thwarted from a petty crime, and young Sullivan gets caught. Hurtled through the meat grinder of reform school and juvenile detention centers, Sullivan learns the way to be a racketeer while his pal Connolly became a priest. It's your standard moral: there but for the grace of God goes I. But the conflict between gangster and priest for the souls of the children (even boys as pugnacious as the Dead End Kids) is a gripping one. It raises the question of how much the gangster movie star persona affects our youth.
As it turns out, it affects them quite a lot. It's difficult to watch Angels without rooting for Rocky Sullivan, and James Cagney. He offers a real intensity and a sense of playfulness even as he's drilling dead his fellow gangsters—his unrepentant cop killing tempered by his unwavering loyalty to his old buddy Father Connolly. Angels pointedly wonders why we look to Rocky Sullivan for heroism as it builds to its final, unforgettable scene. The climactic sequence is so famous and poignant that I'll assume readers already know how it plays out; but those unfamiliar with Angels With Dirty Faces are advised to skip the rest of this review until they've rented the DVD.
After an entire film of soul grappling for the kids, paralleled by the rise of the American gangster and his inevitable fall (in a remarkably staged shoot-out punctuated by tear gas and a teary eyed Cagney practically screaming, “Come an' get me, copper!”), Angels bothers to go a little further. Connolly visits Sullivan in prison and asks him to pretend to “turn yellow” on the long march to the electric chair. Cagney plays the scene as incredulous, wondering how on earth his best friend can ask him to pretend to go out like a coward and wipe out the image he's created for himself as a legendary tough guy.
Angels has James Cagney as the star, which is always a plus for studio pictures of this era. But it also benefits greatly from having ace craftsman Michael Curtiz in the director's chair. Curtiz didn't bear the definitive stamp of a true auteur, but his great films are notable for their remarkable craftsmanship. He gives journeymen directors a good name, having directed the lively The Adventures of Robin Hood the same year as Angels and going on to make Casablanca. Heavily influenced by German expressionism but never so much that his movies feel leaden and thick, Curtiz knew how to keep things moving. And he does significantly more than that in Angels, with recurring visual motifs involving radios, newspapers, and other assorted media in the midst of the highly evocative slums.
“Print the legend” is part and parcel with “We are what we see,” and Cagney's sense of showmanship in dealing with crooked cops and gun-toting gangsters is matched by Curtiz indicating, “Here's how we see the show.” Curtiz, too, knows how to maximize the drama (his favorite camera move is a slow push in to an actor's face, conveying thought under pressure), prolong it (holding on intense, drawn-out dolly shots of Sullivan and Connolly during the death march), and sustain it (using rapid cutting on Sullivan's shadow as he cowers before death, then cutting to his hands gripping the radiator for dear life). If storytelling and inversion are the themes of Angels, it only works because Curtiz is one hell of a good storyteller.
The Dead End Kids are a lively lot with names like the Seven Dwarves (including Soapy, Bim, Pasty, and Crab). While it's doubtful they can carry a film on their own, with middling “juvenile delinquent” pictures like Dead End and Crime School, they do make a memorable chorus of hero-worshiping Cagney wannabes here. Granted, they aren't given many other imitative models. O'Brien is solid and holds his own as the less vivid Connolly, and would-be superstar Ann Sheridan (I Was a Male War Bride, Kings Row) is appropriately lovely and bold as Cagney's love interest. And Humphrey Bogart, terrific in a second-fiddle villain role before The Maltese Falcon created the legend we know and love, is a beady-eyed sweating rodent whose name might as well be “He Who Gets Slapped”.
There's maximum suspense in the slow walk toward death as Cagney puts on his most stoic, confident swagger—until the final, fateful moment where he turns into a shrieking, pathetic ball of jelly, refusing to face his death “like a man.” This display of “cowardice” is unparalleled in gangster movies, and the more Cagney begs and screams, the more we're amazed at how he reduces the hero worship of gangsters to nothing. It's Cagney's finest hour in a career filled with great performances—perhaps because, as the actor himself attested, he kept it ambiguous as to whether Rocky Sullivan really had turned yellow at the very end.
Angels With Dirty Faces benefits from the Production Code because it forces the gangster film to acknowledge its nihilism. As fascinating as it is to see the American Dream gone to rot in films like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, the Howard Hawks version of Scarface, and even The Roaring Twenties and White Heat (both of which Cagney filmed after Angels, resuming his bad guy persona), Angels is more conflicted in its analysis. We love Rocky Sullivan, yet we love him more when he shows true loyalty to his friend the priest, and does the right thing by going down not like a champ, but a chump.