Directed by Michael Curtiz
The United States of America
Once upon a time, there were two best friends growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in New York City. One day when they were down on their luck, they robbed a rail-car only to be caught by to police. As they fled, one of them got knocked down in front of an oncoming train. Facing impending death, the other friend saved him in the nick of time, only to be captured by the police. The one boy got sent to reform school and then prison while the other got the luxury of a normal, if not difficult, childhood. In their adulthood, they would both become angels. Rocky, the jailbird, would become an angel of the streets, becoming a notorious and well respected gangster well educated in earthly pleasures and vices. Jerry, the one who got away, would become an angel of the pew and pulpit, becoming the Catholic priest known as Father Connolly, intent on cleaning up his old neighborhood and keeping the new generation of young men on the straight and narrow. Despite being the products of two different systems and two different lives, both angels reunite one day to catch up on old times. Though different, they love and care for each other. That is the key to the doom that stalks the two throughout the entire film entitled Angels with Dirty Faces. A devastatingly powerful meditation on the forces of faith and loyalty, Angels with Dirty Faces is a cinematic proverb that still shines brightly over seventy years later.
To watch the film is to witness the complete transformation of its two main actors into their respective roles. Pat O’Brien embodies the persona of the virtuous Catholic priest offering guidance to lost souls. Much like his dear friend Spencer Tracy’s character in Boys Town (1938), O’Brien’s Father Jerry Connolly spends his days looking after a group of delinquent young boys. In particular, he has trouble with six local boys who constantly teeter on the precipice of a life of crime. Despite their wild and disruptive antics (in reality they were played by members of The Dead End Kids, a group of streetwise young actors from New York who would go on to star in several other films), Father Connolly exerts a strange power over them. He needs to only enter the room and they will immediately fall silent, staring at their toes. O’Brien maintains a firm, yet gentle calm all throughout the film. He rarely raises his voice because he doesn’t need to. When he talks, people quiet down to listen. It’s clear that the boys revere (and maybe fear) him. The only problem is that they don’t respect him. Despite Father Connolly’s efforts, they remain a bunch of hooligans.
To the boys, Rocky Sullivan is the prophet they have waited their entire lives for. Unlike Father Connolly who soaks up their rambunctious antics and punishment like a pacifistic sponge, Rocky is content to hit them right back. In one key scene, Rocky tries to teach the boys how to properly play basketball. The boys, never having been ruled by authority before on the court, have only the faintest grasp of the machinations of basketball. To them, you need to take the ball from the other team and put it in the hoop by any means necessary. Notice how the boys react when Rocky interrupts the game to correct bad playing or ignored rules. He doesn’t just correct them, he roughs them up to get their attention. If a boy ignores him, it is met with a slap across the face. Jeers are responded to with devastating insults and comebacks. By asserting himself like the alpha male in a pack of dogs, the basketball game is running like clockwork.
These scenes are effective because as the audience, we never doubt Rocky’s authority for a second. This can be easily attributed to James Cagney’s astonishing performance. Having grown up in New York’s Yorkville, an ethnic neighborhood on the upper east side, Cagney came armed with a thick skin and smarts that only the streets can provide. Perhaps that’s why he became as renowned for his performances as Hollywood tough guys. He fit the role of gangsters and mobsters so well that one might believe that he invented method acting. Rocky Sullivan may very well be the definitive Cagney tough guy. Cagney based his mannerisms and street slang for the role (including the infamous “Whadda ya hear! Whadda ya say!”) from a drug-addicted pimp that lived in his neighborhood growing up. Though Cagney would go on to do more famous roles in more popular films (including an Academy Award winning turn as a song and dance man in 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy) his turn as Rocky would define him for the rest of his career.
Despite Rocky’s best intentions of straightening the boys out, it becomes obvious that he is doing little to help. How is he supposed to keep the boys from a life of crime when they respect him primarily for being a criminal? Things are made even worse when Rocky discovers the wicked machinations dictated by his crooked lawyer Frazier and municipal contractor and businessman Keefer. Frazier, played by a pre-1941 Humphrey Bogart more type-casted as a tough guy than even Cagney, has been bribing city officials behind Rocky’s back. When Rocky finds out, their prompt response is to have him assassinated. When this fails, they turn their guns toward Father Connolly who had spoken out against the corrupt government. Rocky, who had made pretenses of getting his act back together, makes the devastating decision to kill both Frazier and Keefer.
Rocky’s murder of Frazier and Keefer mark a stark turning point for Rocky and Father Connolly’s relationship. Rocky knows that he must leave Father Connolly in order to protect him. But Father Connolly will hear none of it. He goes so far as to walk into the middle of a shootout involving Rocky and the authorities in an attempt to make him surrender peacefully. Why does he do this? Is it because as a priest he wanted to end the conflict without a further loss of life? Is it because he doesn’t want to lose the one authority figure that his beloved boys respect? Was it out of concern for Rocky’s soul? I like to think that in those deadly moments with guns pointing towards him from all angles, Father Connolly could only think about the time that scrappy kid saved his life in the train yard.
With Rocky in irons and sitting on death row, Father Connolly visits his friend one last time. Rocky refuses salvation but wants him close by in his final moments. But before he can die, Father Connolly makes one last request of his life-long friend: to die a coward. By begging for mercy and acting like a coward before he dies, Father Connolly explains that it will break the spell that he cast over the boys, thereby saving them from emulating him and pursuing a life of crime. In a sense, he asks Rocky to betray everything that he has accomplished in his life; a complete humiliation and refund of all street cred and respect.
I won’t spoil Rocky’s decision for you. I won’t spoil his reasoning for his actions either, primarily because I can’t. The film doesn’t explain why Rocky dies the way that he does. For the man who lived with his whole personality on his sleeve, his final actions will remain an enigma. All I will say is that his performance in his last minutes was some of the best in Cagney’s entire career.
Now comes the time to end the review. It occurs to me that I can’t end this review the way I would others. I like to leave plots fairly ambiguous so that my readers will be encouraged to watch the films. But I have spelled out almost the entire film for you. What incentive do you have to watch it? All I can say is that it is one of the most touching films concerning friendship that I have ever seen. The bond shared between Rocky and Father Connolly is one of the most profound in the early years of cinema. To watch them is to remember your own tight friendships and the sacrifices and struggles that either enriched them or broke them. It also helps that Cagney and O’Brien’s performances inhabit a universe expertly imagined by director Michael Curtiz. Curtiz, the always reliable director who brought the world such classics as Casablanca (1942) and White Christmas (1954), breathed life into the sets and streets of the film. Never for a moment do we doubt that we have been transported to 1930s New York. After a while, we can almost smell the peanut vendors and the drying laundry. But I’m rambling now. The film is an incredible achievement. It moves with a deft warmth and humor that many filmmakers spend their entire careers trying to invoke. All that I can do now is simply quote the good Father Connolly: "All right, fellas... let's go say a prayer for a boy that couldn't run as fast as I could." I hope to meet you in that little chapel tucked away in that tough neighborhood where the sinners are saints and the criminals martyrs.