Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Angels with Dirty Faces

33. Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Dir: Michael Curtiz


During the 1930s, the Gangster film genre was one of cinema's most popular attractions. The early 30s saw the release of three Gangster films which are still considered classic milestones of the genre: 'Little Caesar' (1931), 'Scarface (1932) and 'The Public Enemy' (1931). Although they all ultimately depicted the fall of their mobster protagonists, these Gangster films caused moral outcry in some quarters. Fears about the heightened levels of violence depicted in these movies, as well as the possibility that audiences would identify with the charismatic criminals, lead to the tightening up of censorship rules in the industries Production Code. Subsequently, Gangster films shifted their focus to either the law officers tracking down the criminals or else to criminals for whom redemption was not out of the question. Far from hurting the genre, the Production Code instead forced writers and directors to find different ways to present the criminal characters in a genre which may otherwise have descended into repetitiveness and sensationalism.

Towards the end of the 30s, Warner Bros. released 'Angels with Dirty Faces', an unforgettably powerful film which has it both ways. Starring James Cagney (whose performance in 'The Public Enemy' forever cemented his association with the Ganster genre) and Pat O'Brien, 'Angels with Dirty Faces' tells the story of two deliquent childhood friends, Rocky and Jerry, whose bungled robbery of a railroad car results in their lives taking very different turns; Rocky grows up to become an infamous gangster, while Jerry goes into the priesthood. Despite the difference in their professions, Rocky and Jerry remain friends and it is this unusual love between two men which gives the film its considerable heart.

'Angels with Dirty Faces' presents us with a sort of sliding scale of villainy. Although we are left in no doubt that Rocky is a bad guy, the script and Cagney's astonishing performance establish him as a bad guy with a heart. Cagney is naughty but cuddly, trading folksy banter with his best pal Jerry when he isn't wielding a gun. Likewsie, O'Brien's Father Jerry is not your average wimpy moral guardian, punching out a barfly who mocks his religion. Both character's retain the essential sweetness of their childhood friendship but their opposing moral codes has shaped them in different ways. So, while we disapprove of Rocky's villainous ways, we also root for him to evade the murderous treachery of his criminal associates who are presented as the worst of the film's baddies. Chief among them, in a role of some subtlety, is a pre-fame Humphrey Bogart as Rocky's slick, corrupt lawyer Frazier.

'Angels with Dirty Faces' examines its two central characters through their relationship with a gang of street kids who Jerry is trying to keep on the straight and narrow. Rocky becomes a hero to the kids when they find out about his criminal past and, while his influence over them helps Jerry to keep them under control, it also sees them beginning to slide towards immoral ways themselves (manifesting themselves in the form of Hollywood's ultimate symbols of evil - alcohol and pool!). Jerry is impressed with how Rocky handles the kids, relating to them on their level by slapping them around when they step out of line. There's a hilarious scene in which Rocky takes over the refereeing of a basketball game, effectively slapping the cheating ways out of the kids! Jerry hopes to harness this power to set the kids on the straight and narrow and hopefully, in the process, do the same for his childhood pal.

Performances are great all round, although the presence of feisty Ann Sheridan seems superfluous and she gradually fades out of the story as director Michael Curtiz wisely focuses on the Rocky-Jerry dynamic. Cagney (Oscar nominated) is perfect as Rocky, giving a realistic, multi-layered performance whose realism gives essential heart to a film that could otherwise have been too melodramatic. O'Brien is a tower of dignity and gentle manliness as Jerry, while the ensemble known as The Dead End Kids strike the right note of impressionable vulnerability disguised as street-smarts. Bogart is detestably weasily as the lawyer.

'Angels with Dirty Faces' is most notable, however, for its remarkable script and the pitch-perfect direction of Curtiz. Curtiz is known as a 'journeyman' director, a prolific worker who would finish one film and then move immediately onto the next studio assignment. In the same year he made 'Angels with Dirty Faces', Curtiz made three other films including another defining classic of cinema, 'The Adventures of Robin Hood'. Unlike the work of more generic journeymen, Curtiz's personal touch is always visible in his work and he could seemingly turn his hand to any genre, resulting in warm, engaging and hugely enjoyable films that were usually of at least decent quality and frequently exceptional. 'Angels with Dirty Faces' is filled with the qualities that make Curtiz's films among the most entertaining experiences in Hollywood history and his not inconsiderably artistry is frequently apparent, particularly in the final scenes.

The closing scenes of 'Angels with Dirty Faces' are a triumph of writing, acting and directing and push an already brilliant film into classic territory. Incredibly moving, they are best experienced without prior knowledge so I will not say anymore about the exact details but I will add that they imbue the film with the sort of heart and emotional complexity that was missing from some of the more defiantly hard-bitten, pre-code Gangster films. Curtiz stops short of sentimentality and gives the scenes enough ambiguity that we can still speculate as to what possibly motivates the actions of the characters. It's a masterful moment of cinema and one which I will never tire of seeing.

'Angels with Dirty Faces' is yet another example of why Michael Curtiz should be, and is beginning to be, held in higher regard. My favourite 30s Gangster film, it's filled with action, humour, emotional complexity and a bittersweet, uplifting quality. See it for the performances, see it for the script, see it for the direction. Whatever the reason, please, please see it.

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