Warner Bros. // 1938 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // March 14th, 2005
"Whaddya hear? Whaddya say?" -- Rocky Sullivan
Angels with Dirty Faces is an underappreciated film from the past that fully resonates with modern audiences. Part gangster movie and part moral melodrama, Angels with Dirty Faces imbues the standby elements of the gangster movie with moral overtones. This juxtaposition creates a dual-layered experience that thrills us with straightforward crime action while exploring a deeper meaning behind the actions of the criminals. This DVD is part of the Warner Gangsters Collection, presented with rich extras and careful attention that should please crime film buffs.
Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and Jerry Connelly (Pat O'Brien) are New Yorkers of Irish descent, making trouble and looking for money as they prowl their urban neighborhood. One of their exploits leads to Rocky's capture and introduction to Juvenile Detention. He progresses from juvie to prison, and from prison to full-fledged gangster. Rocky Sullivan becomes notorious, a name that the newspapers trumpet and people secretly adore. He takes the fall for a particularly lucrative job, leaving a hundred grand in the capable hands of his attorney friend, Jim Frazier (Humphrey Bogart).
Meanwhile, Jerry Connelly has gone from young hoodlum to upstanding member of the clergy. Father Jerry's primary interest is the creation of a basketball gym to keep kids (in this case, the Dead End Kids) off the streets.
Soon, Rocky is discharged from prison and comes back to the old neighborhood. The board is set, the pieces are moving. How has Jim handled Rocky's money these last few years? What will Father Jerry think of his old chum now? Let's throw Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan, I Was a Male War Bride) into the mix, the pigtailed know-it-all-cum-sexpot. But most of all, think of the kids...what will happen to the kids?
A point made in the special features bears emphasis: Michael Curtiz may be the most under-recognized director in Hollywood history. He worked almost constantly from 1912 to 1961, with very few creative lapses. He delivered a classic in almost every genre of film, from silent to sci-fi to western to comedy. (Among them, perhaps the archetypal classic studio film: Casablanca.) By the time he stepped up to helm Angels with Dirty Faces, Curtiz had already directed 119 films. In 1938 alone, aside from the gritty noir we're currently discussing, Curtiz directed a big-budget western (Gold Is Where You Find It), a screwball comedy (Four's a Crowd), and the superb romance Four Daughters. Wait, something's missing...1938...ahh, yes, let's not forget everyone's favorite swashbuckling hero, Errol Flynn, in The Adventures of Robin Hood. One year, five genres, five films -- one of which is in the top 250 films of all time, and two of which are considered classics in their respective genres. And that was just 1938.
Michael's directorial confidence shines throughout Angels with Dirty Faces. Although there are a couple of jarring transitions, the bulk of the movie unfolds with organic clarity. The direction is most notable for the lack of distractions. Few shots announce themselves, and the ones that do are creative, fluidly executed, carefully composed, and informative. Wrong notes from the actors are excised with prejudice. The film moves at speed, but it is easy to absorb. Scenes are established with the right lighting, angles, and framing. In other words, it is hard to spot anything wrong with the film (though if you look hard you'll find things). This is clearly the work of an accomplished director who knows what traps to avoid, and how to get something expressive out of rudimentary elements.
The film opens with a dramatic shot of the neighborhood, a shot that would feel right at home in a Leone or Scorsese crime film. As we pan through the scene, we sense the jumble of humanity, the blue-collar ethic and undercurrent of desperation. The shot closes in on a menacing pair, the young hoods Rocky and Jerry. The shot is remarkable for its sheer scale, but also for the succinct manner in which it establishes the setting. This shot will be repeated later, to equivalent effect.
The pace never lets up, although we get quieter moments and tenser moments. Each step of the narrative is sketched in with cinematic shorthand that somehow seems to say more than full explanations would elucidate. Angels with Dirty Faces takes us through each time-honored cliché of the crime film and puts a personal face on it.
That face is, of course, James Cagney's. In full bore, he smirks, shrugs, laughs, and shoots his way through every scene. Cagney never loses sight of the person inside of his character, which makes Rocky approachable, complex, and realistic. You can see the gears spinning in Rocky's mind, watch him rely on his carefully polished charisma to stall for time. Rocky is both "Rocky Sullivan, Mobster Extraordinaire" and William, the bored street thug who got pinched too young. Cagney's performance is exhilarating, a whirlwind of conflict, menace, ego, weariness, and rebellion. Though White Heat is often praised as his best work, Angels with Dirty Faces certainly holds its own.
O'Brien and Bogart are capable in their supporting roles, rarely outshining Cagney while holding their own in shared scenes. O'Brien coats Father Jerry with a glaze of sugar. It wears off in spots to reveal his street upbringing, but I never quite shook the sense that he was playing up Jerry's angelic piety. Bogart seems less world-weary and more worried than he would in later pictures, but his eyes still stir with hooded duplicity.
Ann Sheridan is regrettably unmemorable as Laury Ferguson, though I'm not convinced that acting is the culprit. Her character is one of the few "wrong things" you can spot if you look for it. Laury makes an uncomfortable transition from goody-two-shoes to fallen mobster dame, back to goody-two-shoes, and then back to mobster dame. Her role in the film is never made clear, and though Sheridan delivers a handful of spirited exchanges, her character sheds readily from our consciousness.
Whenever a group of young actors is collectively referred to as "The [insert colorful adjective here] Kids," you know what you're in for, and the Dead End Kids are no exception. This bedraggled band, vaguely reminiscent of Never Neverland's Lost Boys or hard-edged Rascals, features a heavy, a prankster, a whiner, and other such stereotypes who glower and pout their way through each scene. The gang represents a powerful symbol in the film, and their presence is not as awkward as it could have been, but it isn't compelling either. Angels with Dirty Faces belongs to Cagney and O'Brien, though the rest of the cast shows up.
We've discussed the opening of the film and glanced over the middle, but the ending defines Angels with Dirty Faces and is probably what most people will take from it. (I haven't been overtly spoilerish yet, but that ends now. Skip this and the next three paragraphs if you want to opt out of the spoiler tour.) Father Jerry goes through a couple of minorly awkward transitions himself, though it has to be done to preserve the film's symbolism of neighborhood characters representing large-scale concerns. Jerry becomes a crusader against organized crime, which puts Rocky in the crossfire (in poorly timed proximity to a mob spat, but I digress). The end result is that Rocky goes to the big house to await a 2,400 volt head massage. Father Jerry comes to visit Rocky in his last moments of life, as defiant as ever in his cell. This scene brings the moral underpinnings of the film into sharp focus.
Jerry wants Rocky to die a slithering, wailing, yellow-bellied coward. He wants Rocky to erase the power of his own name, destroy his carefully cultivated mystique. The kids look up to Rocky as a folk hero and role model. If Rocky goes out in a blaze of defiant glory, his lifestyle of crime will be validated. Rocky flat out refuses, and the walk down the Last Mile begins. Dramatic shadows cast Rocky into high relief, a vision of composure and cold arrogance. "Please," Jerry pleads, do this One Thing for humanity.
Just before the lever gets thrown, Rocky erupts into a watery, gelatinous mass of pleading regret. "Please don't kill me!" he whines, "I don't want to die! No, no..." and so on. Father Jerry nearly collapses in relief. There's some question as to whether Rocky was acting or actually repenting. The Hays code dictated that criminal acts had to meet fit punishment. The ambivalence of Rocky's last words meets the letter of the Hays code, but practically spits into its eye at the same time.
If Rocky was fulfilling his friend's last request as I suspect, it is a powerful paradox in Rocky's character. To meet Jerry's request and dissuade future gangster candidates means that Rocky thought about his life and truly found it lacking. In a sense, he was condemning himself and relinquishing his own name in punishment. But to do so displays great character and resolve, which makes the real Rocky a hero. Angels with Dirty Faces is an evocative, apt title indeed.
Warner Bros. has continued its recent trend of excellence in this presentation of Angels with Dirty Faces. The audio is the weakest part of the presentation. Though I always prefer the original mix to surround remixes, there isn't much to say about this one. It doesn't warble much, and it is free from distracting scratches or pops, but it is neither dynamic nor memorable. The best thing I can say about the audio is that O'Brien's and Cagney's vocal mannerisms come through clearly.
The black-and-white video transfer is entirely free of stray colorization (either from faded film elements or digitally induced rainbows) and features pleasing contrast. The clarity of the transfer appears to be due to an obsessively maintained master rather than extensive cleanup. Grain is evident, but in a wholesome "this is a movie" sense and not a "this is a gritty wreck" sense. Fine nicks and scratches pepper the first reel, but quickly recede. The image experiences slight judder and periodic softness, but it also reveals a wealth of detail and emphasizes Sol Polito's careful camerawork. Some of the last scenes struck me with their boldness and clarity. The image is not overworked, which gracefully reveals the age and fine condition of the celluloid.
The list of extras may not seem extensive, but each extra lands big. The "Warner Night at the Movies" sequence is loads of fun. Maltin's introduction is a bit breezy, but his presence sets us in "Big Hollywood" mode and primes us for classic cinema. A Looney Tunes cartoon simply titled "Porky and Daffy" features audacious gags that had me laughing in spite of myself. Who knew that "wacky" could be so funny? The opposite note is struck by a newscast of America facing down the dictators that made WWII such a laff riot. It is chilling to see Mussolini and Hitler palling around. "Out Where the Stars Begin" is the anchor for this night at the movies, a light and funny musical that pokes fun at Warner Bros. while highlighting the studio's prominence. Evelyn Thawl is fetching, and I'm disappointed that she didn't do more work.
The Lux Radio Theater broadcast of Angels is a nice counterpoint to the main feature, but I'm never taken with extras like this one.
Dana Polan delivers one of the best commentary tracks I've ever heard, and if I ever get around to recording one I'm going to model it on this one. Polan assumes that the listener is cinematically literate. He never describes what is happening; he tells you what it means and why it was done. In fact, he didn't even point out that the direction by Curtiz is succinct and free of clutter; he assumes that you can see that for yourself, and explains the mayhem that often erupted behind the scenes. Polan maintains a steady clip throughout the film, highlighting what I hoped he'd highlight and fitting what he wanted to say into the available time. With few dead spots and very little repetition, the commentary makes it clear that Polan has done his homework and is very comfortable discussing the film.
Polan's assertions are backed up in the "Whaddya Hear? Whaddya Say?" featurette. Film historian Rudy Behlmer, author Mark Vieira, and a handful of professors from the University of Southern California film school discuss the social and political concerns behind the production of Angels with Dirty Faces. They describe its place in film history and give the film a modern frame of reference.
I feel the need to correct an oft-quoted misrepresentation of a central event in the film, one that is perpetrated even by the film itself. Father Jerry intones heavily: "Let's go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn't run as fast as I could." The implication is that Jerry and Rocky were on the same orbit, but Rocky's fate was sealed when he couldn't outrun the cops. In actuality, Father Jerry is the one who fumbles at the crucial moment. He trips over his own feet just before he crosses the railroad track. Rocky halts his own flight, runs back, hauls Jerry off of the ground, and then runs behind him to cover his friend. Now I'm not saying that Father Jerry is a liar; maybe he could outrun Rocky in a 100-meter dash. But let's not be so smug about a guy who dragged your head out from under a train wheel and wound up in prison for saving your bumbling ass. This act also firmly establishes Rocky's own sense of honor. Though it may be a manipulation to make us love Rocky, it is nonetheless a central point in the film.
A home-run DVD release should never be taken for granted, even when the parent studio is among the likes of Warner Bros. or Criterion. With a glamorous Night at the Movies to set the tone, a compelling main feature with star power and emotional teeth, pleasing technical quality, and informative extra features, Angels with Dirty Faces is a satisfying package.
Whaddya hear? Whaddya say? I hear people oohing and ahhing over this DVD, and I say they're right.
Review content copyright © 2005 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1938
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary by Film Historian Dana Polan
* Leonard Maltin Hosts Warner Night at the Movies 1938
* New Featurette: "Angels with Dirty Faces: Whaddya Hear? Whaddya Say?"
* Lux Radio Theater Broadcast
* IMDb: Angels With Dirty Faces
* IMDb: Out Where the Stars Begin