Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

It's worth the wait to see one of the most famous screen shots of James Cagney near this film's finale.

His character, Rocky Sullivan (Cagney), faces the death penalty for killing two crime associates followed by a handful of police officers in a last-ditch effort to escape justice.

Watch, and savour, the iconic shot of a defiant Sullivan walking in the shadows towards the electric chair. This is great stuff.

Angels with Dirty Faces is a good, but not great, film. There's no big surprises in this film's plot, but what a cast.

Sullivan and childhood pal Jerry Connolly (Pat O'Brien) followed very different career paths. The pair grew up poor. Both stole, but Connolly only put his hands on things he needed to survive. Sullivan was a little more enterprising.

When an attempted theft of pens from a rail car goes bad, it's Sullivan who ends up in a juvenile detention centre. Connolly escaped police. The stint is the first of several arrests for Sullivan as he gradually gets involved in more serious crimes.

Connolly took a very different career path and became a priest. He's rector of a Catholic parish in his old neighbourhood. Father Jerry and Rocky get re-acquainted when the convict gets released from prison. He rents a room from the girl he pestered as a youngster, Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan), now a fine-looking lady. Sullian is interested. Ferguson, not so much.

Sullivan is eager to see his crooked lawyer, James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), who's holding on to $100,000 of his cash. Hey, this is the Great Depression and that's serious scratch. Frazier, now managing a ritzy nightclub under boss Mac Keefer (George Bancroft), is less-than-pleased to see Sullivan is still alive. He's keen to put Sullivan away for good.

Father Jerry is doing his best to encourage a gang of street toughs to live honest lives and steer clear of crime's allure. But that job is hard to do when Sullivan shows up sporting fine threads and a pocketful of bills. Father Jerry encourages his old friend to be a mentor to the kids. Sullivan is persuaded, somewhat. When Keefer figures out a way to get Sullivan in trouble, it's Rocky who turns to the kids to keep his cash stash safe.

Rocky is back in the big money. Laury, who lost her husband to crime, starts to warm to imagining a life with him. Father Jerry is determined not to be wooed by Sullivan's generous offers of cash help to build a new recreation centre for youth. What good will it do, he reasons, when that site is surrounded by people profiting from crime? Instead, he vows to bring Sullivan and his crowd down.

It's tough to see legendary tough guy Bogart as a cowardly lawyer who mops his brow and begs for his life when he's in danger. But, as film historian Dana Polan notes in a commentary accompanying this 1938 film from Michael Curtiz, he was still being groomed for stardom by Warner Brothers. Casablana, Key Largo and The Treasure of the Sierre Madre would follow.

Cagney is the best thing in this film. He's tough. He's funny. There's still some good in a guy who turned to crime many years before.

RATING: 7.5/10

FUN FACTS: Curtiz would go on to direct Bogart in Casablanca.

Cagney and O'Brien reunited more than 40 years later for Ragtime.

George Bancroft was Curley in John Ford's Stagecoach.

Billy Halop, leader of the Dead End Kids in Angels with Dirty Faces, played recurring character Bert Munson in television's All in the Family.

Frankie Burke made his film debut playing a young Rocky Sullivan. He appeared in 18 films between 1938 and 1941. He died in 1983 at age 67.

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