Angels With Dirty Faces

Michael Curtiz, 1938

There’s these two kids, see, Rocky and Jerry. They’re up to no good, pickin’ on girls and gettin’ into mischief. One day these two kids try to rob a railroad car full o’ fountain pens, but the guard spies ’em and they gotta make a break for it. Jerry can run just a little faster, so he gets away, but Rocky ain’t so lucky. He’s packed off to reform school and grows up to be a notorious gangster. Jerry’s life takes a completely different path.

All grown up, Father Jerry Connally’s (Pat O’Brien) pet project is a bunch o’ kids he’s hoping to keep on the right side of the law. When Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) gets outta the slammer, he heads back to his old neighbourhood and meets up with Jerry for old times’ sake. The kids get a kick outta Rocky, see, they start to idolize the guy. Well what can he do? He’s a charismatic guy fergodssakes!

"So you're a priest now, huh? Well ain't that funny, I killed a priest once!"

"Hello, is that my agent? Look, can you get me a movie where Cagney doesn't kill me?"

This Rocky feller is also mixed up in some shady business with shady businessman Mac Keefer (George Bancroft) and a crooked lawyer named Jim Frazier (Humphrey Bogart). Things start to get serious, I’m talkin’ murder here, this ain’t no birthday party! Father Jerry is determined to clean up the town for the sake of the kids, but his efforts (and a nice, ol’-fashioned shoot-out) land Rocky on death row. The kids got even more respect for the guy now than before. Jerry can see they’ll surely grow up gangsters too, unless Rocky can do one last favour for him – die a coward, so the kids won’t idolize him no more.

Okay, let’s drop the accent. First I’ve got to say, I enjoyed the movie. The acting is top-notch, the direction is beautiful, I found it moving. There’s some nice camera angles and creepy shadows that predate film noir by a good few years, and some nice 1930s-style montages with spinning newspapers. One shot in particular sticks in my mind – footage of Rocky shooting someone seamlessly becomes the picture on the front of a newspaper. Now that’s smart! And needless to say, the death row scene is chilling.

"I ain't playin' yellow for you, preachy!"


Problem is, the thing batters you over the head with the moral. The themes are worthwhile and interesting, hero worship and the responsibilities of a role model. And the idea of two similar people who reach an arbitrary turning point, taking completely different paths in life, is one that science fiction writers would later adopt – only in science fiction, it’s the same person in parallel Universes. Anyway, the movie, it’s just so goddamn (no pun intended) pious.

Thanks to the Hays Code, every Hollywood movie at the time had a strict moral compass. Subversive filmmakers could sneak things under the radar of the censors, but it was unavoidable that murder must be punished and the gangsters must not be the hero, no matter how much more fun they were to watch than the boring lawmen. Yet Father Jerry is always at hand to remind us of difference between right and wrong, Heaven and Hell, and frankly I find it patronising and unnecessary.

The scene of Rocky’s execution is ambiguous – did he do it for the kids, did he do it for Jerry, or was he really yellow? That’s the only ambiguity in the whole film. Anyway, the point is Rocky gets to redeem himself, and Cagney’s performance as they drag him to the electric chair is nothing short of astounding. It’s powerful enough that Rocky presumably saved the kids from a life of crime, the heavy-handed Christian message is a real turn-off for me. The final shot of the film shows Jerry leading the kids out of their shadowy basement hideout, up the stairs and into the light. They’re going to Mass. Boy, I wonder what that could mean?

"Come on lads, we're all off to Heaven."

One Response to “Angels With Dirty Faces”

  1. One thing that might be interesting to point out is that in this movie, Rocky saves Jerry’s life twice. The first time, is when they are kids and running from the railroad bulls, and Jerry stumbles and falls in front of an oncoming steam locomotive…… Rocky goes back and rescues him, gets caught, and gets sent to reform school.

    The second time is when Frazier and Keefer are plotting to murder Jerry. This time, Rocky saves Jerry’s life by shooting Frazier and Keefer, and goes to the Electric Chair for it. I just have always though that point I just made was very interesting.

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