Thursday, 2 August 2007
ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) dir. Michael Curtiz
Starring: James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan
Michael Curtiz is one of my favourite directors, and arguably the consummate studio director – a filmmaker who made lean, polished and fast paced films with little fat or excess. And “Angels With Dirty Faces” is one of those. It’s a classic Warner Bros. gangster film, with Jimmy Cagney at his maniacal best.
Cagney and O’Brien play Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly, childhood friends who we first see in their youth as petty criminals. When Rocky is caught stealing by the police and Jerry gets away their lives divide in two separate paths. Rocky goes to juvie prison and then becomes a hardened gangster, Jerry joins the church and becomes a Catholic priest. When Rocky gets out of prison they rekindle their friendship for the first time in 14 years. Rocky befriends a group of n’er-do-well orphaned street kids (played by a group of young actors billed as “The Dead End Kids”). He has a knack for discipline with the rambunctious punks and so Jerry is accepting of Rocky’s presence.
But Rocky is still knee-deep in organized crime. He takes up with his former partner, James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) and the new boss in town, Max Keefer (George Bancroft). Rocky’s presence threatens Frazier and Keefer’s new business and they conspire to cut him out of his share of the money he’s owed.
Meanwhile, when the kids start idolizing Rocky as their hero, Jerry decides to personally fight against the mob influence in his neighbourhood, effectively pitting himself against his best friend. Their bond of loyalty and friendship is challenged up until the very end when Rocky is on death row. With only his pride and his reputation left, Jimmy asks Rocky to relinquish that to prevent the kids of the street from martyring Rocky and ruining their future lives as descent citizens. The ending packs an emotional wallop and stands up to any film ever made.
“Angels With Dirty Faces” was made before “Casablanca” but by 1938 he had already proven himself with “Captain Blood”, The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Charge of the Light Brigade”. He was a master with his camera and could choreograph and shoot action sequences better than anyone. But his skill with character is on display here. Cagney is magnetic as Rocky. He reads his dialogue with razor-sharp intensity. He’s charismatic and confident, and for the kids, someone to look up to as a former street kid. O’Brien plays his character not so much as a scripture-quoting Priest, but a pragmatic counselor who knows his way around the streets. Even when Rocky and Jerry are on opposite sides of the law the mutual respect for one another is always present. This makes Rocky’s final moments so powerful. And watch how Curtiz carefully shoots Rocky in this moment – in shadow only – an effective and brilliant directorial choice.
Curtiz gives the film some grand scope as well. Look at the opening shot which pans across the New York tenement showing hundreds of people on the street going about their usual day (reminiscent of the establishment of ‘Casablanca’). The action is taut and exciting, especially the final gunfight. As always Curtz knows how to move his camera at the right time to maximize pace, drama and emotion. Watch how he enters scenes as well, often framing a close-up and pulling to find actors and start the scene. It’s a modern technique we don’t notice now, but at the time was actually innovative. And his montage scenes are impressive and technically complex as well - overlapping and superimposing dozens of images to condense time.
The film is also dated in many respects. Rocky is tough, very tough, on the kids in the neighbourhood. The basketball game is almost laughable how Rocky literally slaps the kids into submission. Rocky’s courtship of his girlfriend Laury (girl-next-door alluring, Ann Sheridan) is just misogynistic, cruel and well, definitely not politically correct.
But despite some datedness, “Angels With Dirty Faces” is still a remarkably dramatic character study, with some terrific action in as well. After all it is a gangster film. The scenes with Cagney and Bogart (before he was a star) are worth the price of admission as well – two of the best actors of their day shouting tough gangster dialogue at each other – what else do you need? You can see how much this film was an influence on Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed”. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Angels With Dirty Faces
Unfortunately no youtube clips exist.