Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Two Beers) -
Delinquents Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien) are childhood friends separated by a crime where one was caught and the other got away. Years later, they re-unite only to find that they have taken separate paths in life. Rocky is a seasoned criminal rising in the ranks of the underworld, and Jerry is now a Priest who runs a gym for the community. As their careers come into conflict, their friendship is tested, especially when Rocky recruits a gang of kids from Jerry’s community basketball team. A battle commences for the souls of the community, and no side is safe.
Except this guy, he’s all good…
This story of friends taking alternate paths in life, one lawful and one criminal, has been done many times, but this film came first. Pat O’Brien and James Cagney were close friends in real life, and this shows through in their performances. The character of Rocky Sullivan may have taken the path as a criminal, but he shows a deep level of respect for Jerry’s work both as a priest and with the street kids in the community. The side-plot involving Rocky’s crooked lawyer and business partner Jim Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) stealing $100,000 from Rocky provides some great tense performances from all involved. Bogart’s name was just becoming known, and with this role he shows a vulnerable side rarely seen in his later leading-man performances.
You don’t look at this guy and think “wimp”
Cagney is especially fun to watch, as his fiery character’s intense self-involvement carries him through seemingly every situation. The violent shootout near the end is an act of desperation which ultimately ends Rocky’s career as a criminal, and puts him on Death Row, culminating in a final moral showdown between Rocky and Jerry that shows his true colors, while leaving it up to the audience to decide exactly what those colors are.
The film’s biggest weakness is the way many Code-Era hollywood films were weakened by self-censoring. While the action sequences are well shot, particularly the gunfight at the film’s climax, the movie is quick to remind you that Rocky was “the bad guy”. I feel that the filmmakers went a little too far out of their way to avoid ambiguity, in favor of making the movie preachy. If the script had avoided these proselytizing moments, the same message would have been conveyed more effectively. This doesn’t hurt the movie too much, and simply makes for a few cringe-worthy moments which can be easily shrugged off.
One of the greatest gangster films of the era, preachy elements aside
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for use of: “Dough”, “100 Grand”, “Cops”, “Big-Shot” etc.
Take a Drink: for Catholic Guilt
Drink a Shot: heh, they said boner!
(This never gets old)