Published on November 24th, 1938 | by Padraic Coffey0
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Though Howard Hawks’ Scarface and William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy had both been produced in early 1930s, before the restrictive Hays Code affected how criminality could be depicted on screen, their tone was nonetheless compromised by sanctimonious opening messages, crowbarred in at the behest of studio executives. These screeds, hilariously lecturing the viewer in the case of Scarface (“What are YOU going to do about it?”) sit uneasily with the chaotic nature of the films they open, which often relish the life of a gangster. Michael Curtiz’ Angels with Dirty Faces, released in 1938, found a way of maintaining a moral air without showcasing the fingerprints of didactic censors. This was through the character of Father Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien), lifelong friend to gangster Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney).
The plot of Angels with Dirty Faces is one audiences, both then and now, will have come to expect from gangster films. Youngsters Rocky (Frankie Burke, with remarkable physical resemblance to Cagney) and Jerry (William Tracy) aimlessly cruise New York, with little to occupy their time. After attempting to rob a freight train, Rocky is caught and sent to reform school, while Jerry narrowly escapes. Condemned to a life of repeat offences, Rocky matures into a hardened criminal, while Jerry becomes a priest, entrusted with supervising the young boys of the neighbourhood. Rocky continues to be involved with crooked lawyer Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) and kingpin Keefer (George Bancroft), but his loyalty to Jerry and nostalgia for his misspent youth remains strong.
Evidently a gangster film, the insertion of acting troupe the Dead End Kids as the impressionable youths wowed by Cagney’s snappily-dressed Rocky give Angels with Dirty Faces the air of social commentary as much as crime picture. The character of Father Jerry could have been disastrous, but thanks to O’Brien and Cagney’s sterling chemistry, the two’s friendship forms a surprisingly emotional core. Father Jerry is the precursor to the likes of Robert De Niro’s basketball-playing priest in Barry Levinson’s Sleepers, earnest but not above punching a sneering onlooker in a bar, while the story detailing diverging pathways of childhood buddies would reappear as recently as Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River.
One aspect of the film that has not aged particularly well is Rocky’s attitude towards the Dead End Kids. Taking into account the vastly different relationship between adults and children in the 1930s and the present day, it is still rather shocking to see Cagney slap, punch and kick actors so much younger than he, ostensibly in an attempt to teach them to “play according to the rules”. Humphrey Bogart, impressive in a supporting role, plays second fiddle to Cagney and O’Brien. He and Curtiz would collaborate four years later in Casablanca, still one of the most popular films ever made. Curtiz’ skill as a director is evident throughout, whether in surveying the sets of New York or in an imaginative freeze-frame of Cagney transferred to the front page of a newspaper. And though the prerequisite ‘crime-doesn’t-pay’ dénouement persists, Angels with Dirty Faces climaxes with a superb shootout between Cagney and the police.