Saturday, August 31, 2013

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Director: Michael Curtiz

With James Cagney’s return to Warner Bros. after a long contract dispute comes the return to new peak in the gangster film genre. After the heights of films including Little Caesar and The Public Enemy the studio known for its gritty crime dramas was hindered due to the moral rights of the production code that governed the movie industry in America since 1934. Angels with Dirty Faces reignites the same grittiness and suspense seen in those films of the early 1930s, and under the direction of one the industry’s finest in Michael Curtiz becomes a picture that is just as good as those classics if not even better.

Angels with Dirty Faces is a gangster film about two childhood friends, one becoming a priest, the other an infamous mobster who begins to influence the teenagers of the priest’s parish towards a life crime. Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) returns to his old stomping grounds of childhood after 15 years of crime and prison time, reuniting with his old friend and now priest Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien). Befriending a group of boys that now carryout many of the same hoodlum ways he and Jerry once did as kids, Rocky begins to have an influence on the boys, leading them down a path Jerry has been attempting to sway them from. As Rocky once again becomes mixed up with shady lawyer named Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) things become dangerous for Rocky. Rocky and Frazier have their differences and after a lengthy standoff and shootout Rocky is captured by the police and sentenced to the electric chair. As one last request Jerry asks Rocky to die pretending to “turn yellow” to help dissuade the boys that idolize Rocky from following him into a life of crime, an action that the tough Rocky would never do and promptly refuses. However as he is taken to the chair Rocky turns from tough guy to a screaming, sniveling man, perhaps to help either his old friend Jerry, or the boys who, upon discovering word of how Rocky died, are in shock that Rocky was a “coward.”

Simply a well produced picture all around. With great acting from Cagney, O’Brien, and Bogart to the group of boys known as “the Dead End Boys,” Angels with Dirty Faces is a marvelous motion picture. Directed by one of the industry’s best filmmakers, Michael Curtiz, this drama covers the darker side of not just crime, but its influence on the youth that also roam the streets of American cities. The film is laid with the same drama and action that earlier gangster pictures had in prime of the early 1930s, but finishes a great turning point where the tough guy still gets his way, while helping others in the manner of good in a redemptive conclusion. Cagney’s death and redemption is carried out to perfection in one of the finest scenes of that era of cinema. It marks a new rise in the genre and reintroduces Cagney as the silver screen’s greatest tough guy.

After many years fighting a lengthy contract dispute with Warner Bros. James Cagney was able to fill his time with pictures with the small studio Grand National Films where he used his stature to expand his acting skill with significant say over the films he worked on. After rehashing a new, profitable contract with Warner’s the script idea for what would be Angels with Dirty Faces would follow Cagney from Grand National to Warner Bros. Falling back into the mix of being a tough guy actor, despite his expertise in song and dance, James Cagney would be brought back to being a major player at a major studio, as one of Hollywood’s most well known and respected actors.

Old friends, Cagney and O'Brien, surrounded by the Kids
Old friends in real life, the performances of James Cagney and Pat O’Brien come from their natural chemistry together. Cagney is the classic threatening thug from the age of classic cinema. His performance is possibly accentuated by those younger actors that surrounded him, nearly mimicking his own acting style, seen mostly by young actors Leo Gorcey and first time actor and near copy of Cagney playing his younger self, Frankie Burke. O’Brien was a long time actor that had long paid his dues in the business, with a demeanor that was more straight-laced, making him perfect for the role of Jeffery. Their off screen friendship made it easy to act the parts of old pals, with Cagney commanding the screen, that is until the final scene where O’Brien sheds a single tear that holds the heavy emotion of both losing a friend and joy for the good deed Rocky performed in death to help him possibly save his boys from a life of fruitless crime.

Not to be forgotten is the lesser known actor of the time Humphrey Bogart. The former stage actor struggled to find footing in screen work, discovering his first major impact role in The Petrified Forest, playing a criminal on the run. That single performance would propel Bogart into many tough guy, gangster-type roles, eventually to this part here as Frazier, the lawyer that used Rocky to win big on a single job then tries to off the criminal when he returns from prison looking for his cut of the prize. This was Bogart’s first feature with Cagney and is not nearly as memorable as Cagney, but they would share the screen two more times in the future. Funny enough each time Bogart is pair with Cagney his character would die from gunfire from Cagney.

Cagney surrounded by "The Dead End Kids"
Also seen as a major credit in the cast is a group of young actors known as “The Dead End Kids.” They were a group of New York juvenile actor that had worked together on the stage in the play Dead End, which would later be brought to Hollywood and made into a motion picture by Samuel Goldwyn, bringing along the same group of boys to star in the feature. Warner Bros. saw something special about their street tough exteriors and produced a picture with the boys and Humphrey Bogart entitled Crime School that became a financial success spurring the future of pictures featuring the gang of boy. With their thick New York accents the boys’ interactions with Cagney are very natural in style. From the group Billy Halop as Soapy was the most featured and carried on with the Dead End Kids for many years.  Another stand out was Leo Gorcey as a genuine tough kid (really 22 at the time) and served as an example for the group when Cagney had to put the youngsters into their place when they thought they could adlib lines as they pleased for the cameras. The performances of the boys are rather memorable as a group, bringing a center of action to the story as the souls whose lives depend on the actions of Rocky in the end. The group would in the future fraction off, adding and subtracting boys through the years, working as various studios, remaining busy for a long period of time, but in the end become only caricatures of themselves as the years went on.

Ann Sheridan executes a breakout performance in a supporting role as Laury, a neighbor girl to Rocky, who shares an on screen romance with the gangster. Sheridan had long worked in the movies, but here she really blossoms and makes a well rounded character stand out on screen. Long known for her beauty queen good looks, Sheridan is given a complex character that interacts well with Rocky, provided a role that is not as two dimensional as her previous characters.

Angels with Dirty Faces would be a major critical success, being nominated for Academy Awards in best director with Michael Curtiz. Curtiz would in fact be nominated twice for the award for works during the year. Other nominations received were for best original screenplay, for its gripping story, and for best actor in Jimmy Cagney. The film would become a solid gangster classic which was parodied many time over in time, a sure sign of flattery to the major impact the picture had on the genre. With one of the more gripping death sequences seen in the 1930s, Angels with Dirty Faces stands as a one of the finest gangster films and dramas of the era.

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