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Angels With Dirty Faces

In 1938 Warner Brothers took a stand in the nature/nurture debate, pointing a gangster melodrama, Michael Curtiz's Angels With Dirty Faces, squarely at the poverty, social dysfunction, and ineffectual judicial system that mold and ultimately doom gangland's Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney). It's a random dice-toss of chance — a boy from the New York City slums can't run as fast as his best pal on the day it counts most — that preordains the boy to come of age in reform schools and prisons, which educate him only in how to become a top-dog hoodlum. Fifteen years later, Rocky is a front-page gangster released from prison when he reunites with his pal Jerry, who's now a priest (Pat O'Brien), in their old tenement neighborhood. Even through its contrived sentimentality, Angels remains a pinnacle achievement from the heyday of the Hollywood gangster cycle. Rocky Sullivan, like other toughs played by the charismatic Cagney in The Public Enemy and other hits, so sculpted the actor's public image that not even his footloose spin playing George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy could shake it. The way Rocky hitches his shoulders remains a staple of Cagney impressions. (Cagney took the mannerism, along with Rocky's catch-phrase "Whaddya hear, whaddya say?," from a streetcorner pimp he recalled from his own hard growing-up in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen.) Thanks to this film, Cagney earned the New York Film Critics Award and his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.

When Rocky returns to his old haunts, he encounters the new generation of young street thugs, played well by the Dead End Kids. It isn't long before the ruffians take the dapper, famous, and (in their eyes) successful Rocky as a role model. While Rocky enjoys the celebrity, Father Jerry, who does his best to keep the kids occupied and out of harm's way, cannot approve. Although fate split Rocky and Jerry on their divergent destinies long ago, the kids can still choose which path to take, and nobody sees that better than Father Jerry. Like Cagney himself, Rocky is spirited, often funny, and entirely self-directed. There's nothing false about his cocky swagger and rat-a-tat delivery. His yin/yang equal is Jerry, an activist social reformer who is as savvy and resolute as Rocky, and who's willing to manifest his compassion through a right hook when the occasion calls for it. Meanwhile, Rocky attempts a hard-boiled romance with steely Ann Sheridan (another reunion from the old hood), and catches up with the racketeering gang that he took the fall for years ago. That's when he runs afoul of Humphrey Bogart as the slick, crooked lawyer who owes Rocky a hundred G's in stolen loot. When Bogart's bad-bad guy sets out to bump off Cagney's good-bad guy, we're rooting for Rocky all the way.

However, as the kids trade basketball in the parish church gym for high living with ill-gotten dough and racking 'em up at the pool hall, we see that Father Jerry is correct and Rocky's influence on the vulnerable street kids can make a literally life or death difference. The way Rocky takes care of his former cronies puts the cops on his tail and New York is gripped with gangster panic. A blazing gunfight dovetails smoothly into one of the great Hollywood endings: Rocky's "last mile" walk to the death house and Jerry's appeal to his humanity for the sake of the kids who worship him as a hero. Rocky's final moments before the electric chair's sizzle — all shadows and the sound of Rocky's final words — pump a climax that's as riveting as it is famously ambiguous.

Angels With Dirty Faces sure has aged well. There's a bowlful of old chestnuts here, but it's saved from the terminal trites by its top-flight cast, ear-pleasing screenplay (Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur contributed without credit), and the gifted hand of director Curtiz, who kept the pace lively and the imagery genre-perfect. (1938 saw four more Curtiz films, including The Adventures of Robin Hood.) Even clichés like the kids' pulp paperback street speech ("I didn't say a woid") and newspaper banner headlines rushing toward the screen feel fresh and appropriate. Angels shows that sometimes studios produced good work even when knuckling under to the Thou-Shalt-Nots of the Production Code's killjoy moralizing (the original conformist "PC"). It's a gangster picture with a marshmallow center, so it contrasts in interesting ways alongside Cagney's The Public Enemy and especially White Heat.

These days, we note wryly that this Depression-era film's "society is to blame" text, and the Code's dictates on how lawmen and criminals must be portrayed, make a perhaps humbling red-state/blue-state unity. The whole "crime doesn't pay" trope has never felt more quaint than it does today, but the way Angels With Dirty Faces balances hard-bitten gangster drama with warmly stage-managed religiosity gives us an entertaining period piece, one which shows that after more than sixty years you still can't go wrong with a Jimmy Cagney movie.

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This fine DVD edition, part of the six-disc Warner Gangsters Collection, comes from a print that's in great shape even though it has not been frame-by-frame restored. The slight scratches and wear aren't bothersome given the quality and solid tones of the black-and-white image. The DD 1.0 audio is full and fuzz-free.

The extras start with a terrific commentary by author and USC film prof Dana Polan, whose packed and caffeinated scene-specific lecture covers the film's themes and motifs as well as production techniques and the usual background on the cast, Curtiz, and historical context.

The ever-perky Leonard Maltin hosts Warner Night at the Movies 1938, which augments the main feature with trailers, a newsreel (Hitler, Mussolini, and Chamberlain sign the Munich Peace Pact while FDR speaks at the New York World's Fair "World of Tomorrow"), the hooray-for-Hollywood musical short "Out Where the Stars Begin" (19 mins., beautifully preserved), and Bob Clampett's Looney Tunes cartoon "Porky and Daffy."

A 2005 featurette, Angels with Dirty Faces: Whaddya Hear? Whaddya Say? (22 mins.), brings us film historian Rudy Behlmer and others lauding Curtiz and Angels' cast while spotlighting its place among gangster films and the impact of the Production Code.

Cecil B. DeMille himself introduces the audio-only extra, Angels' Lux Radio Theater adaptation (59 mins.) starring Cagney, O'Brien, and Gloria Dixon. It comes with the original commercials for Lux Toilet Soup ("protects daintiness") intact. Keep-case.
—Mark Bourne

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