Saturday, August 22, 2015

Angels With Dirty Faces

How is Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) different than the Dead End Kids movie from the year before, Dead End?

It’s got a kind of hokey love story, like its predecessor, but this time it is between the bad guy, James Cagney (as Rocky Sullivan) and the good girl, Ann Sheridan (as Laury Martin), instead of between the good guy, Joel McCrea (as Dave Conell), and the good girl, Sylvia Sidney (as Drina Gordon). Of course, Connell doesn’t find the really good girl Martin/Sheridan until he gets past the flashy charms of a half bad girl, the semi-gold digging Wendy Barrie (as Kay Burton), but the love story in either movie seems almost grafted on to the story the movie makers really wanted to tell.

And that story, like in Dead End (1937) and Boys Town (Spencer Tracy, also 1938), tells us that there really is no such thing as a bad boy. Angels with Dirty Faces is also a story about friendship, loyalty, and about the limits of both. Finally, it asks the question—just how much do you owe your fellow man?

Rocky Sullivan(James Cagney) has always been the staunch friend of Father Jerry Connolly (Pat O'Brien). They were pursued by the cops when they were rough and tumble kids, hard cases in the making (with dirty faces and empty bellies), and Rocky got caught, and refused to give up Connolly, and so Rocky went to reform school, where he learned to be a gangster.

Unlike Humphrey Bogart as Baby Face Martin in Dead End, whose entire moral code seems to consist of looking out for himself and the main chance, Sullivan has some feeling for his fellow human beings. He helps Connolly in his attempts to reform the kids, and he protects Connolly when Connolly vows to go after both Cagney and his crooked compatriots (Bogart as mob lawyer James Frazier and George Bancroft as a mobbed up contractor named Keefer, both of whom have gotten their slimy tentacles around the body politic of the city) and Frazier and Keefer decide to bump off the good father for his trouble.

When I say Cagney protects Connolly, of course, it means he kills Keefer and Frazier. And eventually he goes down for it. And up to there you have a pretty good melodrama. But then we get another climactic scene, an encore to the great shootout where they finally get Sullivan (out of bullets, and always with a flair for the dramatic, the stylish and the daring, Sullivan throws his empty weapons at the cops), and it is one of the all-time great ones. Rocky is going to the chair, unapologetic and unafraid all the way to the end. And Jerry, his old buddy, begs him to beg for his life, to play the coward, to turn the boys away from the road they are on, the road to perdition, and Rocky does. When the boys ask Connolly if it is true, what the papers say, that Rocky begged and pleaded for his life at the end, he tells them yes. “Now let’s pray for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”

How can you not love that? For all the clumsy groping and pulling at the heart strings, it works. What makes the movie so good, I thought, was not the message, which is at best simple and at worst simplistic—that there but for the grace God go I, go they, go the children, oh dear God save the children— but the two main characters. Cagney, and to a lesser but still considerable extent, O'Brien, carry the movie. Connolly is a priest who genuinely cares in a completely un-sanctimonious way, still loyal to the buddy who was loyal to him, but more loyal to these kids who may be on a dead end, unless he can find an exit for them. Sullivan, who lives by his own code, kind of like save the women and children after yourself, and only kill those who were going to try and kill you, puts Connolly and the kids first at the end.

Cagney is great, charismatic, and unashamed of what he is. He is not entirely happy about what he has become, but he completely accepts it. He is 100% himself. And you can’t help but like him, knowing that he is bad, but kind of good too. You almost want to be him, but when you start to think you do, there will always be Father Jerry there to warn you against it.

© 2015 Mike Welch

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