Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Editor's Note: Good News and Bad News

Well, hello faithful readers (there have to be at least a couple of you out there...)!

I'm here to depart two very important pieces of news. I have good news and bad news. First, the bad news.

Tomorrow I will be starting the fall semester of my senior year of college. I will be juggling six classes and my graduation project. Yes, I said SIX classes. Don't ask...

As a result, I will not be able to do as many reviews a month. Since the inception of this blog, I have made it a personal goal to do at least six entries a month. I have always been able to keep up with this goal. But with my new schedule and work load, doing six reviews will be impossible. So, I will reduce the number of reviews a month down to only four.

But now the good news! With my work load reduced to only four reviews a month, I will be able to provide something that I have never been able to before: a consistent schedule.

You heard me.

A single, reliable update schedule.

I will post a new review every Saturday afternoon. Scout's honor.

To all the great readers out there who have read and supported my blog for so long, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Please, please, PLEASE leave comments so that I can know you are there and I can gauge what kind of reviews you all like. Please feel free to leave suggestions, recommendations, or even critiques and insults in the comments section. I appreciate every and any kind of feedback.

With any luck, I will still be able to write about great, under-appreciated movies for a long time to come.

Thank you again!

Nathanael Hood
Editor and Writer

The Snake Pit

Directed by Anatole Litvak
The United States of America

Hollywood has always had a tenuous grasp of subjects dealing with mental illnesses. Sure, they herald those films that deal with the insane and disabled as ground-breaking and monumental. An old Hollywood joke is that the only guaranteed way to win an Oscar in to play a retard. And yet, Hollywood, and the world film community at large, never really seems to agree how mental illness should be depicted. Some films, like Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H (1975) operated under the fallacy that sufferers of mental illness could turn “the crazy” on and off as the plot saw fit. Other films, usually character studies like The Rain Man (1988) and A Beautiful Mind (2001), exploit their mentally challenged characters for laughs or tears. By and large, what most film-makers don’t realize is that the mentally ill do not, and cannot, comprehend the world the same way sane people do. It’s easier to examine mental patients from the outside looking in. So film-makers treat the mentally ill as spectacles to observe and study.

The best films about mental illness are those that model themselves after the characters that they portray. One of the greatest of these is Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven (1994), a film that was shot from the perspective of a schizophrenic. Every shot, every angle, and every edit reinforced the idea that we were intruding into the schizophrenic’s world and seeing things the way that he did. But because it didn’t exploit its main character and instead tried to view things from an objective standpoint, it did not receive the acclaim that other films in its sub-genre did. In other words, it did not win any Oscars.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the public just were not ready for a film that dealt so objectively with mental illness. There have been other films to explore insanity in the same manner long before Clean, Shaven. One of the first, and one of the greatest, was Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit. Based off the novel by real life psychiatric patient Mary Jane Ward, The Snake Pit was a daring exploration of the depths of one woman’s madness and the cruelty of the system to which she had been committed.

We are introduced to a young married woman named Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) who has been committed to a mental hospital after suffering a serious mental breakdown. We follow her as she attempts to regain her sanity and her memory from before the breakdown. At the start, she cannot even remember who she is, where she is, and even how she got there. She is forced to share accommodations with other, sicker, patients. Some are amiable and easy to get along with, like the old woman who lives under the delusion that she is a wealthy debutante. Others are more violent and terrifying, like the woman named Marty who strangles anyone who touches her.

Incredibly, none of the actresses in the film were real inmates. The patients were played by expert character actors who had studied real patients in mental institutions for a period of three months prior to filming. Nobody took their research more seriously than Havilland who sat in on lengthy therapy sessions, watched hydrotherapy and electric shock treatments, and attended social functions held for the patients. The effect in the film is so realistic that if not for the non-linear storytelling, The Snake Pit could almost be confused with a dramatized documentary. The effect was so powerful that during the film’s release in Britain, the local censors added a forward to the movie that guaranteed the audiences that everyone involved in the film were actors, not actual patients.

The censors were also quick to add that British mental hospitals were very different from the ones depicted in the film. After all, Virginia’s stay was not a pleasant one. Although her sessions with kind Dr. Mark Kik are helpful and soothing, she is always callously dismissed to return to the mercies of the attending nurses. Using the term “mercy” is too generous for the sadistic nurses of the asylum. Some take obvious pleasure in administering painful treatments to Virginia. In one devastating scene they lure her out of her cell with promises of seeing her husband only to ambush her and submit her to electroshock therapy (a treatment which, since its inception, was illegal to perform without the patient’s consent). But the worst punishment of all is the threat of the “snake pit,” an open room where the worst cases are corralled and left to their own devices. The idea behind the sinister treatment was the belief that just as a normal person could be shocked into insanity, an insane person can be shocked back into sanity if placed in an environment that was hostile enough…

Relief for Virginia comes in brief breaks between the dual nightmares of incarceration in the asylum and her own mind. As her therapy progresses, the source behind Virginia’s illness are revealed. When she was young she was involved in a car accident that killed her father, leaving her to be raised by her strict and virtually uncaring mother. Virginia feels great guilt over the accident because she was the one who asked her dad to take her for a drive. When she was approached by her boyfriend with a marriage proposal, her deep-seated grief and guilt drove her to madness. Only when she accepts her role as a mother and wife does her life regain some semblance of normalcy. Some would argue that the film’s subtext suggests that the root of Virginia’s insanity was the desire to be independent of dependency on a man. Therefore, the film makes a powerful statement that only those who act the way society wants us to can be considered sane. It’s a powerful interpretation. But remember that The Snake Pit was filmed in 1948 when psychiatric cures were still relatively crude. In that time, the film’s proposed cure would probably have been accepted as medically sound.

But the film isn’t concerned with the fine print of Virginia’s mental illness. Instead, it focuses on seeing things through Virginia’s eyes. The plot advances in fragments of non-linear flashbacks which provide exposition and character histories, reflecting the state of Virginia’s warped mind and perception of the outside world. In moments of pain or psychotic intensity, the camera becomes more violent and wild. The music reaches a fevered, blistering pace (the film’s only Oscar win was for Best Sound Recording). For instance, the scene when Virginia has a relapse and is cruelly thrust into the snake pit is a masterpiece of timing, editing, and shot construction. At first, the camera follows Virginia around as she weaves in and out of the deliriously insane, trying feebly to escape their torment. Slowly, as the sound becomes louder and more unbearable, the camera slowly starts to move up from the ground until it is suspended from above, giving the viewer a bird’s eye view of the room. As the camera pulls further back, the patients shrink until they are tiny dots ripping each other apart in an inescapable confinement. Without using a single special effect or trick shot, a room of living human beings is literally transformed into a snake pit.

Just as movies usually had to back in the Forties, there is a happy ending. Virginia is cured, reunited with her husband, and leaves the cursed institution. But the film’s story doesn’t end with the last shot. The film was such an eye-opener to the public that it launched reform movements to change conditions in mental hospitals in twenty-six states. Therein lays the testament to the film’s power. Using what knowledge they had available at the time, Anatole Litvak and his colleagues created a genre defining film that caused positive change throughout society. Few films have ever achieved an impact so pronounced. Maybe that is why it has fallen by the wayside over the years. After all, who wants to see the reality behind mental illness and its treatment? It’s much too unpleasant. It's more fun to watch Dustin Hoffman recite Who’s on First to a weary Tom Cruise.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage)

Directed by Victor Sjöström

Woe to those whose lives are mired in sin! For we all must face a terrible reckoning at the twilight of our lives. When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, we face one final journey, one final voyage to that eternal palace, or to that infernal pit. But to those who fear the road before them, fear not! For the road will not be a lonely one. Accompanying us on that grim passage is a guide garbed in black who has made the trip countless times. Do not mistake him for his dour master known simply as Death, for he is just a servant. Cloaked in black and carrying a sinister scythe, this chauffeur drives a decrepit carriage pulled by a tireless horse. For him, an hour on earth becomes a hundred years. What crime, what terrible deed must he have committed to be tasked with this terrible employ? Simply being a victim of the tyranny of the clock. For every New Year’s Eve, the last unfortunate soul to die before the stroke of midnight must become Death’s valet for the New Year, and the driver of the Phantom Carriage.

First told in 1912 by Nobel-prize winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, the story of the Phantom Carriage has been told several times in the history of cinema. But no adaptation has been as stunning, and as vital, as the 1921 version directed by and starring Victor Sjöström. A truly revolutionary film, The Phantom Carriage takes its place alongside the other great silent horror films, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1921), and Faust (1926). Like its compatriots, The Phantom Carriage is a moody, sinisterly atmospheric film. But unlike the other films mentioned which liberally created new universes out of expressionist sets and painted shadows, The Phantom Carriage takes place in a grimly realistic world filled with broken, yet believable characters. When Sjöström thrusts the audiences into the realms of the unreal, the audience shivers, for they see a haunted reflection of the world around them.

The story centers on a drunkard named David Holm (Victor Sjöström), a once respectable family man who fell into a bottle and never crawled out. Once a proud husband and father, he has been reduced to a derelict content to drown his sorrows with his fellow miscreants. On a cold New Year’s Eve, he sits in a graveyard and tells his friends the tale of the Phantom Carriage. But once the story ends, a fight breaks out and David is struck down dead in the street. To his horror, his astral form sits up from his body and watches as an ancient carriage pulls up beside him. Its driver looms over him and pulls off his hood, revealing himself to be his old friend Georges who had died the previous New Year’s Eve.

David regards his old friend with shock and dismay for his poor fortune. But Georges has no time for pleasantries. Georges is on a mission to take David on a tour through his life and show him how he has fallen from grace. Much like Jacob Marley, he will carry his Scrooge through the halls of the past to face ancient sins and transgressions. David is forced to watch how he abandoned his dear wife Anna for drink. In one terrible scene, we watch as Anna locks him in a small room to keep him from infecting their children with tuberculosis. In a terrible rage, he chops the door down with an axe and pounces on his family.

He must watch as he is jailed for drunkenness. Even worse, he is forced to relive his friendship with a young Salvation Army girl named Edit who introduced him to Anna and later took care of him after falling out with Anna. In his delirious state, he infected her with tuberculosis and abused her. Now dying, Georges takes David to her bedside. The poor girl had always blamed herself for David’s misfortune. After all, she was the one who introduced him to Anna. But in a moment of mercy, David kisses her hands and tells her that he is okay. Relieved, Anna peacefully drifts off to her final sleep.

But David’s trip is not over. Georges takes him to his old house where they encounter Anna getting ready to kill herself and their children. David begs Georges to stop her, but he responds that he has no power over the living. In a moment of desperation, David cries out to Georges and God to have mercy on his poor soul and let him interfere. He is miraculously restored to life and humbles himself to Anna, begs for her forgiveness, and swears to be a better man. In this scene, Sjöström reveals his film to be a grim, supernatural morality tale for all poor sinners.

In watching The Phantom Carriage, it is impossible to both be unaffected by the story and unimpressed by the sheer scope of Sjöström’s craftsmanship. Filmed in only three months with a script that took only eight days to write, The Phantom Carriage was a watershed film for both narrative structuralism and the use of special effects. The film is filled with flashbacks, a technique that was revolutionary for its time. In fact, there are even scenes where there are flashbacks within flashbacks, creating three levels of narrative for the audience to follow.

But what the film is most remembered for is its eerie special effects. As mentioned before, The Phantom Carriage did not use German Expressionistic sets. Instead, when they needed to hearken the audience towards the supernatural, they would frequently use superimposition to place make figures and objects appear ghostly. Take the scene early on where the driver of the carriage collects the soul of a man who committed suicide: a transparent figure walks to the still body, pulls the man’s soul out, and escorts him back to the carriage with his body still on the floor. Or how about another ghastly scene where the carriage rides over an ocean and the driver descends to the bottom of the ocean to harvest a drowned sailor? Watching the carriage draw itself slowly over the tossed surf is as haunting an image as ever created by the German Expressionists.

Much of the credit for these effects must go to the cinematographer Julius Jaenzon and his lab assistant Eugén Hellman. The post-production of the film was a lengthy and difficult task. They would have to constantly juggle with superimpositions and double exposures. Such techniques were notorious for being challenging to pull off, since they used hand-waved cameras that needed to be operated at exactly the same speeds each time that they superimposed an image. But the end result is a convincing and unsettling effect.

The Phantom Carriage
is easily one of the most important silent horror films ever made. Its influence has been felt for generations. Ingmar Bergman, one of the film’s biggest fans, claimed to watch it every year on New Year’s Eve. Its influence becomes apparent when you examine the character of Death in his seminal The Seventh Seal (1957). It has even been said that Stanley Kubrick modeled the famous scene in The Shining (1980) where Jack Nicholson chops through a wooden door with an axe after the similar scene in The Phantom Carriage. But despite its importance and influence, it has remained poorly distributed and generally unseen by most moviegoers. I will not attempt to explain why, but instead bemoan the depreciation of this classic film. It remains a silent miracle, a dark triumph, and chilling warning to all those who hear the call of the ghostly rider and the Phantom Carriage.


Monday, August 16, 2010

The Bitter Tea of General Yen

Directed by Frank Capra
The United States of America

There is an old Chinese saying that goes, “May you live in an interesting time.” This seemingly innocuous statement is not a blessing, but a curse. In a society that so values balance and stability, to live in a time of change and upheaval is to live in a time of great loss and hardship. As a character in Frank Capra’s forgotten The Bitter Tea of General Yen explains, “Life is cheap in China.” Set against the backdrop of the Chinese Civil War in the early 1930s, such is the situation that the characters in Capra’s film find themselves thrust into. But The Bitter Tea of General Yen does not limit itself to being set in a time of great upheaval. In fact, the film itself represented a monumental paradigm shift in the way that Hollywood approached interracial relationships. As one of the first films to depict interracial sexual attraction, it originally tanked at the box office. The public was not ready, or not willing, to entertain the idea that people of different races could fall in love, or lust. Since its release, Capra would go on to direct many great American classics, such as It Happened One Night (1934) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But to those who know, The Bitter Tea of General Yen is one of Capra best, and most daring, films.

The film opens on a tumultuous night in a Chinese city being ravaged by war. As the troops from both sides move in to attack, the civilians struggle to escape the city. But amidst the chaos and confusion of a full scale urban evacuation, a group of foreigners gather together in their best suits and dresses and exchange pleasantries. These are the missionaries who have come to do the Lord’s work in the land of the heathen. On this night of death and destruction, they have gathered for the wedding of one of their most prominent members. The betrothed missionary is set to marry Miss Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck), a fresh face from the states eager to help in the Lord’s work. But before they can be married, the couple announces that they must enter the war zone to rescue a group of orphans.

To get the orphans to safety, they need a travel permit from a local general. The only one in the area is the ruthless General Yen (played in yellowface by Swedish actor Nils Asther). A cruel man, he laughs at the idea of rescuing orphans because they are worthless. When they convince him to write a pass, he writes a fake one in Chinese that insults them. As they rush to the orphanage, oblivious to the danger that they face with a fake pass, they become separated. Davis is then kidnapped by General Yen and taken aboard his military train.

She awakes in his summer palace to the sound of prisoners being executed by a firing squad outside her window. When she tells General Yen to stop, he responds by telling his men to take the prisoners down the road where the noise won’t bother her. Clearly, General Yen is a man whose values are opposed to Davis’. In fact, General Yen despises missionaries. But for some reason, the two slowly become attracted to each other.

To Davis, there is something seductive about General Yen. Although the film establishes that she is being drawn to him, it keeps the cause of her affection ambiguous. She spends the entire movie trying to make him change his ways. Could it be that she sees him as just another possible convert? Or does she see him as something exotic and exciting to her puritanical New England sensitivities? In one of the film’s most famous sequences, she dreams of a stereotypical evil Chinaman lunging at her. She is saved at the last moment by a man dressed in Western style clothes who knocks the Chinaman away. When she embraces her rescuer, he rips off his clothes and reveals himself to be none other than General Yen. Such powerful psychodrama was practically unheard of in pre-Code Hollywood. The sequence establishes that General Yen has infected her mind.

But what of General Yen? He holds Davis’ beliefs in contempt. So why does he become so enraptured with her? Maybe by seducing Davis, General Yen is passive aggressively attacking the Western culture that he despises so much. Could it be that he sees Davis as a challenge? After all, as a general, he has everything his heart could desire: women, money, and an army of men willing to give their lives for him. Perhaps he sees Davis as a final conquest.

Whatever the reason, their relationship is thought provoking on two different levels. The first is in the psychological ramifications of their forbidden love. The second is in the cultural clash that the two create. Davis is a beacon of Western Christian morality; chaste, forgiving, selfless. General Yen represents the Chinese Hollywood stereotypes of the early 1930s; greedy, conniving, and ruthless. Davis is an idealist who believes that with God’s help any problem can be resolved. General Yen is a callous pragmatist who understands that whoever has the money and the weapons has the power. Throughout the film they try to convert each other to their own ways of thinking. But each instance fails.

Things come to a head when General Yen discovers that one of his concubines is an enemy spy. Davis, who had befriended the woman, goes on a long tirade where she begs him to forgive her and let her live. General Yen acquiesces and pardons her. But he knows that she will betray them both. His rational for giving in to Davis’ demands was to make a point. General Yen had no intentions but to “convert a missionary.” For the concubine does exactly what General Yen expected: she sells him out to the enemy.

As the film ends, his enemies have discovered the stash of his money (the only thing keeping his men loyal to him). As they approach, General Yen drinks a cup of poisoned tea in his empty chambers. At his side, wearing a bridal gown meant for his future wife, Davis sits and kisses his hand. Besides the stirring artistry of the scene and the rest of the film (courtesy of photographer Joseph Walker who shot it through filters and used highly textured shadows), this sequence provides several paradoxical interpretations. It was Davis’ naivety in both her faith and the powers of forgiveness that doomed the man that she loved. The idea of a film that subversively argues against the teachings and practicality of religion was unheard of in those days.

Despite the film’s institutionalized racism (having the lead actor perform in yellowface), The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a powerful and critical film in the development of race relations in the cinema. Ignoring the psychoanalytical interpretations, the core story is of an American woman and a Chinaman falling in love. It was for this very reason that the film bombed. Audiences rejected it, women’s clubs condemned it, and it was denied a rerelease by the Production Code Administration. In Britain, the film was banned in several areas for miscegenation. Capra was forced to abandon serious dramas and direct screwball comedies and more inspirational films. For many years, the film was forgotten.

But thankfully, today we can marvel at The Bitter Tea of General Yen and recognize it as the masterpiece that it is. Stanwyck and Asther give powerful performances that rock the film to its core. Frank Capra showed an uncanny ability to control and choreograph gigantic crowds of extras, making the scenes where people flee from the city seem like footage from a newsreel or documentary. The film is early Hollywood melodrama at its height accompanied by brash psychological implications that were ahead of its time. A moody examination of forbidden love and its consequences, The Bitter Tea of General Yen is Frank Capra’s most underappreciated film. A bitter film with a bitter climax and a cynical attitude, it is nonetheless one of the sweetest films of the early 1930s.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Angels with Dirty Faces

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.