Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Crime Drama, Gangster Film  |   Release Date - Nov 24, 1938 (USA)  |   Run Time - 97 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Fred Beldin

Young viewers unfamiliar with 1930s era gangster melodramas might think that this classic is full of well-worn clichés, but Angels With Dirty Faces is the kind of film that brews up the bromides for others to dispense. Decades of homage, satire, and straight-up rip-offs have ensured generations of folks who have never seen a James Cagney film but always recognize an impersonation ("You dirty rat!"). Angels With Dirty Faces has aged well, still delivering plenty of excitement and hard-boiled action alongside its touches of hokum: the kindly priest of the ghetto parish, the cold killer with a soft spot for kids, and the long-suffering neighborhood girl who loves them both. The cast is packed with future icons at work. A pre-legend Humphrey Bogart plays against type as a conniving, cowardly lawyer, still three years away from The Maltese Falcon, and four years from his defining role in Casablanca (also helmed by Angels director Michael Curtiz). Pat O'Brien had made several films with Cagney prior to Angels in which he often served as his cast mate's foil, but this is the first time O'Brien played a priest, a persona he'd be associated with for years to come. The Dead End Kids didn't premiere with Angels, but they're still in their prime, too raw and tough here to be full-fledged comic relief; it would be a few years before their scrappy personas aged into buffoonery as the Bowery Boys. Then there's Cagney, at the height of his firebrand power, swaggering and sneering with charisma to burn. One never doubts that Cagney could survive a swarm of bullets in the climactic gunfight, as he wages a one-man war against both cops and crooks. Angels With Dirty Faces seems to acknowledge its star's glamour and the possibility of his gangster image celebrated and worshipped by impressionable youth. When Father Jerry asks Rocky Sullivan to feign cowardice as he walks to the electric chair, it's to prevent the naïve Dead End Kids from hailing him a martyr who spits at authority up to his last seconds on earth. Sullivan finally puts on the act, begging and pleading for life, and loses all credibility in the eyes of his onscreen admirers. Despite the film studio's intention of "social commentary," however, the audience in the theater watching Angels may feel this final cop-out makes the character even more appealing. After all, Rocky Sullivan shows great fortitude by "turning yellow" in the face of death; it was something he loathed to do, but chose because of his affection for the Kids and his friendship with O'Brien. Who wouldn't want to be that cool?