Angels with Dirty Faces is a Hays Code era gangster film which stars James Cagney as Rocky Sullivan, a notorious gangster with a good side. Rocky grew up what appears to be the Lower East Side with his friend Jerry (Pat O’Brien) getting up to all sorts of misdemeanours and petty crime. One day the boys are being chased through a train yard when Jerry slips and falls in front of a moving train. Rocky saves his friend but as the boys make their escape Rocky is caught and sent to reform school which leads to a life of crime. Years later Jerry is a Priest and having been released from a stint in jail Rocky returns to the old neighbourhood to claim his share of loot from his crooked lawyer Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) but Frazier ain’t taking too kindly to Rocky walking back up in here, you get me, you mutz.
The film features a great central performance from Cagney as well as some brilliant set design and cracking dialogue. It feels a little diluted when compared to earlier pre-Code films but you get the picture of the world in which the characters are living. What is obvious although sometimes too obvious is the message. Sometimes it’s not who you are but where you are that makes you and the film’s black and white telling of this idea is laid out very clearly.
The film opens in what is a fantastically designed set of New York’s Lower East Side. It is almost exactly as you’d imagine it to look in the early twentieth century and bustles with people moving about and kids with little better to do than cause trouble. One of these kids is Rocky, who isn’t an angel but isn’t what you’d call evil. Having been sent to reform school his path in life is laid out in front of him and a brief montage shows the next fifteen years as he makes a name for himself in the underground crime world and is sent to jail several times. Despite this seemingly black and white portrayal of a gangster there is something more to Rocky. He takes a group of local hoodlums under his wing and begins to teach them the way of the world. They idolise him and as a result he can influence them to stop thieving and become more interested in wholesome activities. Rocky helps out his old friend Jerry, now a Priest to get the boys on the straight and narrow but as long as they look up to him as a gangster; they’ll never take the straight path.
The film's closing scenes are never in doubt due to the rules of the Hays Code. Introduced in 1930 but becoming much more stringent a few years later, the Hollywood Code had strict guidelines on how stories were allowed to unfold. This meant that if a character was essentially bad then he had to get his comeuppance. Because of this some of the drama is taken out of the closing scenes as one way or another you know things aren’t going to end well for Rocky. Even so the ending is extremely powerful and rounded off the film’s overarching theme really well. The film’s release in 1938 also meant that violence had to be scaled back in comparison to earlier gangster pictures such as Scarface or Little Caesar. Despite a few shoot outs there is never a drop of blood spilled and you rarely actually see a shot hit its target. Instead you often see a character firing shots then the camera will reverse to the person being shot at where you’ll hear, but not see further shots and the man will go down. One scene has the camera pan quickly to the right as Cagney fires his gun, showing his own reflection in the mirror. It’s a fantastic shot.
There was one aspect of Angels with Dirty Faces which left me feeling really ambivalent. This was the sound and dialogue. On the one hand I love the fast paced talking. When I think of the period or actors the likes of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney I can’t help but speakreallyquicklyandputnospacesbetweenmywords but when trying to listen to it through seventy year old sound recording equipment I can become frustrating. Talkies were still only a decade old in 1938 and I’ve had trouble hearing dialogue in films made right into the 50s so it’s not a picture specific problem but it did hamper my understanding at times. Although I thought Cagney was excellent, outshining the more highly regarded Bogart, I thought that Ann Sheridan was a weak link. In one vital scene she comes off as very wooden but at other times she over cooks her emotions. I enjoyed watching The Dead End Kids and I’m not surprised that they continued to be cast in films for years after this film. Despite the Code clamping down on violence, they were still able to smack each other around the head with no censorship.
Overall I liked Angels with Dirty Faces but have some reservations. The themes were laid out far too obviously and I struggled with some of the sound but there are a few great performances, it is expertly designed and lit and the story, obvious though it may be, is appealing and well constructed. There are some good shoot outs and one of the all time great movie catch phrases “Whadda ya hear? Whadda ya say?”