My dad, long dead, was one of the biggest Jimmy Cagney fans of all time, and of all the films the little Mick with an attitude made, my dad’s two favorites were the 1940 boxing film, City For Conquest, and the 1938 gangster-cum-social melodrama, Angels With Dirty Faces. Both black and white films had Cagney team with Ann Sheridan, and both films had terrific performances by Cagney. But, if he had to choose, my dad would have gone with the earlier film as his favorite, simple because it featured the Dead End Kids, who would later star in comedy films as the Bowery Boys. And, amongst them, was my dad’s second favorite actor, at least of that era- Leo Gorcey. I would likely go with both films, too, and in the same order, but for a different reason, and that’s because the earlier film, when I first watched it with my dad in the early 1970s, left me asking him why the priest in the film had lied, at the end, to the Dead End Kids? However, that query about the ending to the film is, oddly, not the most asked. The most asked query is whether or not the lead character, gangster Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) turns ‘yellow’ when he is sent to the electric chair. Of course, anyone knowing anything of gangsters, and watching the prior parts of the 97 minute film (not 78, as wrongly noted on the DVD cover), can find no evidence to support such a claim. But, that’s precisely why so many ask such a superfluous question- that’s what people tend to do when something is so obvious.
The film follows the lives of Sullivan and Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien), from childhood (where they are played by Frankie Burke and William Tracy, respectively- and Burke does a fantastic job of becoming a young Cagney) through middle age, when the pals become a gangster and a priest. As boys, they try to rob a train, but are chased by train bulls. Jerry falls on the tracks and Rocky saves him, but this allows Jerry to get over a fence while Rocky is caught, sent to reform school, and then embarks on a life of crime and prison. Years later, he looks up his old pal, who is now an inner city priest trying to straighten out the lives of juvenile delinquents. When they reacquaint, it’s telling to see how the priest has receded into sanctimony, rejecting life’s best, whereas the gangster embraces it, and the all of himself. The main focus of the padre is a group of boys called the Dead End Kids (actors fresh off a turn in the film Dead End, based upon a Broadway hit). The boys are Soapy (Billy Halop), Swing (Bobby Jordan), Bim (Leo Gorcey), Hunky (Bernard Punsly), Patsy (Gabriel Dell), and Crabface (Huntz Hall), and they soon come to revere Rocky, after he bests them, after they pickpocket him. Also in the film is Sheridan’s character, Laury, who provides the reluctant love interest who then champions Rocky against all comers, including Jerry.
In the intervening years, Rocky hooked up with a Mob lawyer, Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), and his main client, Keefer (George Bancroft), a hoodlum. They fail to kill Rocky, who turns the tables on them, steals information about their connections, and is soon in partnership with the pair. Jerry then tries to use this information about Rocky and his partners to launch a radio crusade against corruption, and when Rocky learns that Frazier and Keefer want to kill Jerry, he kills them, and is hunted by both Keefer’s men and the cops, who corner him in a building, and tear gas him. Jerry talks him out, but Rocky uses him as a human shield, after he’s killed a cop. Rocky is shot in the leg and captured, even though his gun was out of bullets. He is sent on trial, and newspaper headlines detail his fall, as the Dead End Kids read about it, believing their hero will beat the charges. He does not, and is on Death Row. Minutes before his execution, Jerry visits, and asks for one last favor, seemingly oblivious to the fact Rocky saved his life a second time. He asks Rocky to turn yellow and grovel before the execution, so the Dead End Kids, and many others, revile him as a coward, not a hero. Rocky refuses to let his last bit of dignity go. He defiantly walks the Last Mile, but then breaks down, with even his hands furiously grasping a radiator. This relieves Jerry, who prays for his friend’s soul. It’s clear that Rocky does yet another favor for his friend, and for the boys, who now revile Rocky, after Jerry lies and tells them the newspaper account of Rocky’s end is true. Jerry then asks them to pray for a boy who couldn't run as fast as I could, implying that not only social conditions made Rocky a criminal, but also the luck of the draw. This is true, to a degree, but Rocky clearly chooses his life of crime after his initial incarceration, and the fact is that Rocky chose to save Jerry, who would have been killed, had not Rocky pulled him from the tracks, thus dooming himself and saving Jerry.
The film was directed by Michael Curtiz, who later directed Casablanca and Mildred Pierce. He does the usual serviceable job here, but there’s no spectacular camera work by cinematographer Sol Polito, nor any memorable scoring by Max Steiner. The screenplay rises above the usual melodrama, even though it has some simplistic moments, and moves very quickly (almost too quickly, at times), setting up the bulk of the film’s characters’ motivations in less than nine minutes. It was written by Rowland Brown, John Wexley, Warren Duff, Ben Hecht, and Charles MacArthur. But, the obvious weak links are with the characters of Laury and the Kids. Like most love tales, this one is wedged oddly into this tale, and is quite underdeveloped. And the scenes with the Kids seem forced and unreal, for they are never developed as characters, and exist merely as symbols. The film veers towards being a cheap comedy in those moments. Had both of those angles been dropped, and more development of the Rocky-Jerry relationship been pursued the film would have been better. Of course, the film works mainly because of Cagney’s bravura performance. It’s as good as in other films, and contrasts with O’Brien’s portrayal of the priest. Cagney got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance- the first of his career (he would win a few years later with Yankee Doodle Dandy), and it was well deserved, and even won the New York Film Critics Award for best actor.
The Warner Brothers DVD is a good package. The film’s visual quality is quite good, although there are a few scenes where noticeable dirt and scratches appear, and the film is seen in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The DVD is part of a 6 disk Warner Brothers Gangsters Collection. The extra features are very good, for the DVD tries to present the film as it would have been shown in theaters, in a section called Warner Night At The Movies. Hosted by film critic Leonard Maltin, the segment features cartoons, newsreels, trailers and short subject films from the same year as the film in the DVD- this one being 1938. There are trailers, a musical short- Out Where The Stars Begin, and a cartoon, Porky And Daffy. There is also Cecil B. DeMille introducing an hour long audio radio play of the film, from Lux Radio Theater, starring Cagney, O’Brien, and Gloria Dixon. The featurette on the film is good, called Angels with Dirty Faces: Whaddya Hear? Whaddya Say? (based on the saying Rocky utters as a greeting throughout the film). Assorted film experts reminisce on the film and its impact. There is also the original theatrical trailer for Angels With Dirty Faces. The film commentary features film historian Dana Polan, and it’s a superb commentary track. Polan is sometimes a bit too verbose, but he never condescends, treats the listener as a well informed cinephile, and his passion for film, in general, and this one particularly, is strong. He is scene specific and detailed in both the production of the film and its critical reception over the decades. There’s not a dull spot in the commentary, and Polan squarely comes down on the anti-yellow side of the argument re: Rocky’s end. He also makes some nice points about this film almost being an early meta-film on gangsterism- and compares it to the much later film New Jack City, and that it also acts as a nice comment on the media manipulation of the gangster ideal of the day, claiming that information- not brute force- is where power now lies. It’s a cogent insight, and Polan also correlates the film with The Sopranos and other latter day gangster fictions.
Now, let me end where I began, on the debate over Rocky’s being yellow or not. Regardless of how one views it, this is a fine film- not great cinema, and maybe not even near great, but entertaining, moving, and well made. Oddly, it’s a much finer film than either of Curtiz’s two more lauded films, mentioned above, even if it’s not nearly as well recalled by fans and regarded by critics. It’s clear that Rocky is faking his breakdown in the end. First, the film could not be what it is without such. Rocky needs to be redeemed, and having him truly be a coward make shim all the more reprehensible. Recall, the Hays Board wanted uplift, and the last scene of the film, where Jerry lies to the boys and they rise up cellar stairs in almost heavenly fingers of light, mirrors the scene, moments earlier, where Rocky ascends beyond prison bars in light. Rocky is clearly headed for salvation. But, aside from the diegetic necessity of the moment, Rocky clearly has only one weak spot- his care for others. It’s why he, not Jerry, is caught and sent to reform school; it’s why Jerry is alive, and Rocky on Death Row for killing a cop; and it’s why he saves the life of Laury when he’s first ambushed by Keefer’s men. Rocky is neither a psychotic nor a psychopath. He has a clear set of ethics- right or wrong, and lives and dies by them, for he is willing to do so. And he clearly shows no fear in the face of death. In fact, it is Jerry who, in many ways, comes off as the more ethically alarming figure, for he follows no consistent ethic. He originally lets Rocky take the fall for the train robbery, then smugly declaims his virtue throughout the film, even as it’s clear he has no real understanding of the younger generation. He also seems to miss many of the key motivations of human beings that Rocky instantly is aware of. Yet, through all of this, the man seems to have no real sense of loyalty to the man who saved his ass several times, takes no responsibility for his own actions, up to and including the lie to the Kids, who, if this film were truly a bit of social realism, not melodrama, would have easily called bullshit on the priest. Finally, he seems to have no real regard for Rocky, save as a means to his own end, whereas Rocky even tells Jerry, when caught by the train bulls, that his getting nabbed was just the breaks. Rocky is a criminal and killer, but he’s a mature, responsible one. Jerry is an immature, irresponsible coward. One even wonders if, when Rocky caterwauls, Jerry is praying for Rocky’s soul or thanking God for once again manipulating his friend for his own means, whose ends are justified because Jerry says so (lying- even for an ostensibly good cause- is still considered a sin, no?) Finally, there are only two choices re: the ending: Rocky is truly a sniveling coward (belied by his saving of Jerry’s life at least twice) or Rocky is redeemed. Reality (diegetically or not) point conclusively to the latter choice.
As for why Jerry lies, the reason is obvious. It serves his end (good or bad), although the truth is my dad was never really convinced by Jerry’s motives, and I cannot recall any answer he gave me to my query of him. But, on one thing we agreed: Angels With Dirty Faces and Jimmy Cagney were fun to watch. They still are.