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Screening #3: Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) – 97 min.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

James Cagney, one of Hollywood’s greatest “tough guys”, plays opposite of Pat O’Brien in this classic gangster film about two former friends who had chosen different paths when growing adult.

Also starring the legendary Humphrey Bogart (who was selected by the AFI in 1999 for being US cinema’s greatest male star) and glamorous Ann Sheridan at the beginning of their careers.

The film is directed by Hungarian born director Michael Curtiz who won in 1942 an Academy Award as Best Director for the classic “Casablanca” (starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman).

Warner Bros. produced a number of other significant gangster films during the Thirties that have distinct themselves from the usual escapist entertainment of that period: Little Cesar (starring Edward G. Robinson, 1930), The Public Enemy (with James Cagney, 1931), Scarface (with Paul Muni, 1932), I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (with Paul Muni, 1932), The Petrified Forest (with Humphrey Bogart, 1936) and The Roaring Twenties (with Cagney and Bogart, 1939). Ten years later, James Cagney returned one more time to the portrayal of a gangster for Warner Bros. in the classic film noir “White Heat” (1949).

Angels With Dirty Faces received three Academy Award nominations for Best Director (Curtiz), Best Writing Original Story (Rowland Brown) and Best Actor in a Leading Role (Cagney).

James Cagney was strongly admired as one of the greatest actors of all time by many famous film professionals, among them Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, Stanley Kubrick, Clint Eastwood and Malcolm McDowell. Three times nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor, he received it once for “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in 1942. He also received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1974, and was ranked #8 among the “50 Greatest American Screen Legends” in 1999. In the same year, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring him. Actor Charlton Heston called him “…one of the most significant figures of a generation when American film was dominant, Cagney, that most American of actors, somehow communicated eloquently to audiences all over the world …and to actors as well.”

IMDb link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029870/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

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14 responses to “Screening #3: Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) – 97 min.

  1. Weni Chang ⋅

    It can be said that Angles With Dirty Faces is one of the greatest works among gangster movies. The reason is that, the exquisite descriptions of the relationship between characters has successfully led the audience into the world of Rocky and Rev — the world that angles are merely devils covered by the mask named pure.

    The story clearly implies the relationship between the two main characters, Rocky and Rev at the very beginning of the film. They used to do everything together — making fun of girls, joking around, and even robbed the railroad car. And robbing the railroad car starts the highlight of the story. It lights up the audience’s emotion, guiding them into the gangster world.

    I have never watched a gangster movie before. Not only because I was not interested in this type of movie, but I did not understand the idea of “brotherhood spirit” that men cannot live without. However, this film completely inspires me. Growing up while Rocky returns to the old neighbourhood where he used to belong, Rev becomes a priest. This has revealed the main idea of the film — the confrontation between angle and evil. I could absolutely feel the contradiction and struggle while Rocky and Rev are debating whether what they are doing is right or not. Also, the scene while Rock and Rev encounter the youth to reflect their status and situation catches most of my attention. The most touching part is at the end of the film, in order to guid the youth the right direction from blindly adoring Rocky, Rev is begging Rocky to pretend to beg for mercy. It can be seen that their friendship is very secured and profound.

    Time does fly and things change. This movie has vividly described the desolate feeling — the feeling of someone that you used to be so close with suddenly shifts what he/she has been doing and becomes a completely different person. Although it can be really sad, we learn that friendship is what motivates us to move on.

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  2. Yui ⋅

    I was not familiar with the gangster movies before I watched “Angels with Dirty Faces”, but the storyline of this film caught my attention and I really liked it. I think the movie centers on the theme of the childhood relationship of two main characters, Rocky and Jerry. They have grown up together since they were 6 years old; however they end up choosing to go completely different path. Interestingly, there is a striking contrast between the two characters’ lives. Rocky becomes an atrocious criminal and lives in a life of crime, while Jerry becomes a compassionate priest who also takes care of children with his honesty. I think this clear contrast of two characters is what established the foundation of the plot of this movie.

    The kids also play a significant role. It was interesting for me to see how the street kids admire or idolize Rocky, see him as if he is a hero. They even emulate Rocky’s life style like drinking alcohol, smoking, gambling, and also dressing up like him after they get money from Rocky. One of the things I noticed was that by watching Rocky from the perspective of the kids, we kind of establish an attachment to Rocky and start seeing him as the likable character.

    One of the lines I found really memorable in the film is done by Rocky, just before his execution; “I think in order to be afraid, you’ve got to have a heart. I don’t think I got one. I got it cut out of me a long time ago”. It shows his toughness as a gangster, but it also can be a somber moment where he looks back in his past at the very last moment of his life. I think this is the moment that evokes audience sympathy for Rocky.

    I also liked how the film ends with Jerry’s last line, which is “Let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could”. Especially, how Jerry describes Rocky, as a boy who couldn’t run as fast as he could, strikes me. This line sets my mind back to the beginning of the film, two characters’ initial turning point of each of their life.

    Overall, it was very helpful for me to watch this movie with subtitles. First, it was really hard to understand what the kids are saying due to the high pitch, fast talking, and accent. Secondly, I was able to pick up some expressions or phrases, which I probably would not comprehend only by listening to character’s dialogues. For example, “What do you hear? What do you say?” which is repeated constantly by Rocky almost every time when he starts conversations with other people. Another one is “hoodlums”. It also took me a while to figure out the combination of yellow and cowardice, but it was interesting to hear or see the phrase like “a yellow rat”.

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  3. Michelle ⋅

    Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) is an American gangster movie that was released during the Hays Code. I noticed that although this is a gangster movie, it has refrained from intense violence and drug use. This is the result of the Pre-Code restrictions.

    Since this was shot in film, I think the fade to black transition is often used. I really like how they transition from one crime to another, including newspapers headlining the crime. It gives an element and impression as to how big of a troublemaker Rocky Sullivan actually is. Contrary to that is his childhood friend, Fr. Jerry Connolly, who is a parish priest. Although they both started as delinquents, clearly shows the difference of the two characters. I also like how Rocky Sullivan is portrayed as an antagonist in the beginning, and as an audience you grew to enjoy his presence and see how he is actually a somewhat good guy in the film. I really like the clear establishing of the characters.

    I noticed a little bit of the parallelism on the start on the second plot, where an aerial shot was used to show the neighborhood, and how it has not changed since Sullivan went to jail and reform school. The camera composition is really good as well, a lot of camera movements and various angles as well. It has a standard camera style compared to the 1933 film, Gold diggers. The ending is a memorable one as well. Whether he really was scared to die, or he did the “yellow rat” image as a last favor to his good friend, it really struck me. From classic film to the other, Angels with Dirty Faces kept me at the edge of my seat and got me interested throughout the movie.

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  4. Max ⋅

    I was glad to experience a old-school gangster movie to finally see it’s roots. The genre of gangster movies has fascinated me ever since I was young. Things that you notice when you compare this movie to other famous gangster movies like Godfather or, my personal favorite, Goodfellas is that the scale is much smaller.

    I have gotten used to mafia stories telling a tale of the rise and fall of a certain gangster and/or family. This movie definetly started out like that when portraying Rocky when he was just a little rascal on the streets. What I was expecting was to see Rocky join a family or work his way up in power. Though this kind of happened since Rocky became nutorious and commited several crimes that reached the newspapers, it felt rushed. It made a huge jump in time while Rocky was in prison.

    Since I did not see a steady buildup of his crimes I did not have the feeling that he was very powerful amongst the city’s criminals. He certainly DID act that way though. I loved how confident Rocky acted and even though I did not witness his rise in power, I could still feel a bit of that through the actor’s acting. Rocky was in control all the time as he notices he is being followed and set up for murder.

    I liked the elements of the street kids that were later introduced. As I mentioned before: I was expecting to see Rocky rise in power and maybe start his own gang/family. I thought that the street kids he hangs out with were going to fill in that roll. He uses them for several small tasks and pay them. I liked their relationship with Rocky as the kids looked up to him like a father and mentor.

    There was one scene that annoyed me though. The basketball scene went on for way too long in my opinion. Rocky punishes the street kids for not playing by the rules. He teaches them discipline, but it just drags on and on. There is a lot of screaming and noise going on and I wanted it to be over as soon as possible.

    A small detail I loved came to light at the end. Rocky mentions to the kids to “never believe what’s written in the papers” When they read that Rocky turned yellow in the newspaper they indeed don’t believe it. I remember thinking to myself that this movie would fall flat on it’s face if they suddenly DID believe what was written. But it was the word of Rev that convinced them. A nice touch.

    Overall I liked that was able to see a glimpse of the roots of this type of movie, but I have gotten spoiled over the years. I want my gangster movies to be larger than life and experience the gangsters all they way through their tough journey like American Gangster, Scarface or ealier mentioned classics.

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  5. Reggie ⋅

    Angel with dirty faces reminds me of all the old black and white bootleg movies I use to watch as a kid. In my opinion this film had more of a moral to tell than most of the other hoodlum films. Most of the films I have seen of those times were usually one group waring with another or the police. The police of that time are usually as a whole corrupted with one or two good cops that try to hold the rest accountable to the law. Angel with dirty faces seems to take a different approach and starts with two kids, rocky and Jerry, being delinquents. They end up getting caught stealing pins from a train cart. Jerry escapes the police while Rocky gets caught. Jerry tells Rocky that he will turn himself and hope they lessen the charges, but Rocky tells him not to because he doesn’t believe in ratting out friends who were lucky enough to not get caught. This is the beginning of Rock’s criminal record as it shows him going in and out of prisons. Newspaper reports of him getting lucky and evading some charges. All the while I guess Jerry’s close encounter with the police tells him that he never wants to go to jail. So you do not hear anything about him. Rocky finally get caught with a big charge that Frazier, his corrupted lawyer, can’t get him out of. Once again taking the fall and not ratting out a friend with the promise that when he gets out he would have his money waiting for him when he gets out in 3 years.
    3 years later he is out and looking for what’s due to him. Frazier tries to be greedy and evade the debt. Jerry is now a rev and it trying to change the city for the better. Story goes on to show the issues between untrusted business partners. It also shows the issues between childhood friends who ended up on different sides of the law. This film has the typical we use to be best friend but now we are enemies hoping that each other can bring the other to their side, then ending up respecting one anothers’ views having may the best man win stance. Rocky has a hoodlum is admire but kids whom are seemingly following in his footsteps. This cause Jerry to fear that will end up like rocky, most people in his line of work usually die in shoot outs. So Jerry using their friendship to persuade Rocky, asks him to stay away from the kids and Rocky does. I believe Rocky loves his childhood best friend and probably wish he was more like Jerry, which is why he listens to Jerry. Though out the movie Jerry asks a lot of favors from rocky and rocky never ask anything from Jerry. Rocky is caught because he was trying to stop Frazier from going after Jerry. Rocky pretends to be overly scared when he’s put into the chair. Though I do believe even though he acted tough he was scared to die. The reason I say this is because he could have just did a shot out with the cops and died there. Do like every other movie when they pretend that still have bullets and make the cop shoot them, but he threw the gun at them. Therefore they had to arrest him and not shoot. So I believe Jerry’s request gave him and excuse, but he pretended like he wasn’t because he wanted if no one else would then at less his childhood friend would think he was fearless. So he kept the act up till the last moment and crumbled. The thing at the end with the kids wrapped up to neatly and what ever happen to the girl? Not only did she lose her husband, but she also lost her boyfriend to organized crime, bet she finally learned her lesson.
    Overall I like the movie, but think there were a lot of holes. Like why was Rocky so well-known but not feared. Rocky and the girl seem like a rushed story plot. The bro-mance was one sided usually its push and pull. The over-all moral of the film was decent but it would have been a lot better if he had stuck to his character and went out fearless.

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  6. Adrian D ⋅

    Perhaps the most unconvincing gangster and gangster movie I have ever seen. Personally I have no idea why James Cagney is considered a movie “tough guy”, because in ‘Angels of Dirty Faces’ he seemed to be a ridiculous and plastic gangster, who doesn’t even know how to shoot a gun properly. Gangster movies need realism. Audiences want to voyeuristically experience a violent world from the comfort of their seat. The characters in this movie were soft and unthreatening- very hard to take seriously.
    However there is a legitimate excuse for this horribly lightweight gangster portrayal. All movies made from 1930 into the late 1950s had to adhere to the Hays Code (more formally known as the Motion Picture Production Code). These moral guidelines were set up to define what kind of movie content was acceptable and unacceptable for the American public. As a result, people didn’t see violence, profanity, overt sexuality, drug use etc in movies. So as a plausible, realistic gangster movie, ‘Angels of Dirty Faces’ is doomed from the start.
    I tried to find some merit in the movie. However, there wasn’t any. I’m a product of my environment. I can spot fakeness a mile away, especially fake hard-men. I couldn’t overcome the fakeness of this whole piece of work. They should have made it into a comedy.

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  7. Lance

    Being a fan of gangster movies, I personally greatly enjoyed Angels with Dirty faces. One common story cliché I have always found interesting is the “two childhood friends go down very different paths” cliché. Those two friends, Rocky and Jerry, are both full of personality; Rocky is especially entertaining to watch as he interacts with the rest of the cast. His way of dealing with the boys who idolize him may be my favorite part of the film. Interesting to note is the lack of or downplayed violence in the film due to the restrictions enforced on the industry by Hays Code. Despite being a gangster film, there is hardly any attention drawn to any of the shoot-out scenes. Compared to what we have today, which may be considered hyper-violent action for a desensitized movie watching audience, Angels with Dirty Faces was very tame. On the subject of violence and deaths, I found Rocky’s final scene especially impactful. The ambiguity of whether or not Rocky’s actions at the end were due to following Jerry’s pleas to keep the boys on the right path or whether they were his true cowardice coming out in his final moments. Overall, I found Angels with Dirty Faces to be a very entertaining film about two friends who ended up on different paths and how they used their different positions in life to help each other.

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  8. akems

    So this movie was probably my least favourite because of the fact that he died with no dignity. For some reason I always liked movies with no happy ending but with this one since I was hooked with Rocky’s character I didn’t want him to die begging for mercy. I felt like dignity and dying with pride is all what he had left. Although in today’s discussion it was interesting to hear other people’s thoughts about it. I purely thought he broke down and cried before they killed him because he cared for the kids and his friends. Though it made sense that maybe he begged because he was really terrified and he finally realised that there is no way out of this one.
    My least favourite character was Jerry. I could believe it when he asked Rocky to be weak and completely change what he was throughout the years they have been together. I just image myself in that kind of situation, your friend is about to die and you basically owe him your life. The last you ask for Rocky is to throw away what he believed and his dignity? I was shocked and a bit disappointed in a sense. He says it is to discourage the kids to do bad things? How did it become all Rocky’s responsibilities. I thought he did such an amazing job inspiring those kids. I just do not see why Jerry thinks Rocky need to change. Maybe because of what I believe in life. You can have someone to admire but it is always your choice to choose the same path of that person or not.

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  9. Sandra ⋅

    I think the Haye code gave this film a story more open to interpretation then the director might have intended for. To me Rocky was an “Antihero” a good guy who had life against him, he “accidentally” became the bad guy in my opinion. Maybe I just have a positive and optimistic mind or maybe I´m a sucker for bad boys. Rocky and Jerry both came from the same poor upbringing and they both committed the “first” crime together, and it was just a coincident that Rocky and not Jerry got chough sent away to a juvenile detention facility and led on to a road of “funky business”. Thanks to the Haye code we never get to see rocky committing any crimes leveeing it up to our own imaginations on how he´s criminal carrier was made. What we did get to see though is, how Frazier tricks Rocky and also how Rocky took the blame alone in the very first heist. This also made me think about Jerrys character, perhaps he only choose to become a priest because of the guilt he felt towards letting Rocky take the blame, I feel like he is very conscious that he could have had been in Rockys shoes. The ending I think is reflected in the basketball game, Rocky cared for the boys, but because of his upbringing he only knew how to act tough. He might have hit the boys and treated them really rough but he also fed them and cared for them in the only way he knew, and they looked up to him. I believe that in the end he acted the same, he was all tough towards Jerry but for the kids in the very end he gave up his pride. Form time to time the film lost my attention and it felt a little slow but over all it was a great film with lots of room for own thohugths and interpretations.

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  10. liannagutz ⋅

    To be quite frank, Angels with Dirty Faces has so far been my least favorite movie due to a number of things but most importantly the ending. As for characters, Rocky definitely was a more complex character and much more compelling that Father Jerry. There is no way that Jerry can exceed the kid’s fondness for Rocky and he seemingly resents his “gangster” ways. Father Jerry allowed and even provoked Rocky to surrender to his weakness. This movie is perhaps best known for it’s twisted ending. Rocky is offered an opportunity to do something that would truly help Fr. Connolly and the Dead End Kids. This is meant to be a morally uplifting and redeeming possibility, and on some levels it is. But as the story plays out, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that the proposed good is bound up with a moral wrong in a way that can’t be reconciled with Christian moral tradition. Immoral means are proposed to bring about noble ends. This unfortunate misstep diminishes the film, even if it doesn’t entirely negate its moral message. There’s a point in the film where Fr. Connolly receives a donation that he knows is stolen money, and he refuses to accept it, insisting that he will not build on “rotten foundations.” That’s a principle that’s better than the end of this movie. The film’s flawed ending doesn’t mean that Christian viewers can’t enjoy it or appreciate its social message. It does mean that, as with most films, Angels with Dirty Faces must be watched critically, with an eye to sifting the good from the bad, remembering that the gospel is always a sign of contradiction, challenging even our best intentions and aspirations.

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  11. hiro ⋅

    This was the first time for me to watch old gangster movie and I enjoyed most of the part. I liked how we can see the each characters’ past to present. As we follow the events, we could find that the most of the characters have their unique characteristics and the way of living, and most of them did not change even they grow older. Main character Rocky was my favorite in this movie. I liked his way of living and thinking which is to keep a promise whether it is old promise or not. He was a gangster and his way of living may not be right for common sense, but he chose to live in that way and he never changed his style through out the movie. I believe Rocky was a good person and had chance to live without involving the issue related to the gang. He showed his charisma to manage young kids who did not follow other people. He could be a good teacher with his charisma and the ability to discuss with kids eye to eye. On the other hand, Jerry was the least favorite for me in this movie. He used to be a bad kid who hang around with Rocky and he knows Rocky very well. Jerry had problem of not be able to handle the young kids. In the end Jerry pleased Rocky to sacrifice his only one pride to make young kids disappointing. I was disappointed with Jerry’s choice. Overall I really enjoyed this movie and kind wanted to watch modern gangster movie right now to compare with this movie.

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  12. Reggie ⋅

    Sunset Boulevard was an interesting movie. I like the overall story he is touches base with so many aspects of Hollywood. You have the old super star of the silent films that could not hold her acting career into the new era of movies. They never fully explain if she couldn’t voice act or just plain couldn’t remember lines, but she did well enough so that she never had to work another day in her life. She didn’t so much care about the money so much as she cared about being on the set and acting. Then you have the old script writer whom seem to be past his prime and unable to come up with new ideas, but trying his hardest to stay afloat. Then you have the ever ambitious script reader whom is looking for her chance to become a writer. The movie takes these 3 people and intertwines them into a love triangle that fully expressed their wants, needs and how things ended up how they did. The old superstar not wanting to be left alone, so she tries to buy love. The young aspiring writer finding a kin of like mind and then feeling for him because they have so much in common. The guy being torn between doing what he wants and what he knows is the right thing to do. He is being tempted by money and security on one hand and by the mutual attractions of love and acceptance on the other. In the end he decides the money is not worth the security and that even though she accepted him he does not deserve her, that he is bad for her life. Everything get wrapped up nicely at the end, but I do not like how they started the movie with him being dead in the water then flash backing to the story. I believe his death would have had more impact if it had become as s surprise or did some twist where he barely made it out alive when you thought he was dead.

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  13. Lilou

    Angels with Dirty Faces, directed by Michael Curtiz’s plot plays on the good and evil in life. Since this movie was produced during the Hays Code, the usual Mafia motifs are scarce; drug-abuse, violence, sex etc. However, how the plot balances hard-bitten gangster drama with warmly stage-managed religiosity gives us an entertaining period piece. From the beginning we see Rocky with his best friend Jerry, in the trails of petty theft. Rocky is sent off to juvenile hall while Jerry remains a free boy.
    I’ve always been a big fan of Cagney and this film is a testament to his charisma as an actor. He is more well-rounded in Angels with Dirty Faces than his other works, like Public Enemy but is still young enough to fit the part neatly, justifying the Dead End Kids’ adoration for him.
    The cinematography was well thought out symbolically throughout the film and the set designer/Director of Photography definitely has a love for mirrors as we see it as a reoccurring theme throughout the film. The main example being the scene in Frasier’s office where Rocky has his back to the camera, but we are still able to see his expression in the mirror from a different angle, while our main focus is what is happening from Frasier’s perspective.
    I quite enjoyed this film and will add it to my collection of gangster films.

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  14. Rocky reminds me a lot of Joe Pesci from Casino. Which kind of makes sense; I felt it revolved around his acting when Frazier, the lovely and talented Humphrey Bogart, shined beyond with his soothing voice. Where Pesci was a great supporting actor I feel Cagney would be Bogart’s sidekick. Jerry can’t take responsibility for his actions as a kid, but can become a minister to children- hypocrisy? Although the kids themselves played like the cast of Newsies. Child actors- am I right?

    I enjoyed some of the cinematography in this film. It looks like they had their 3rds plotted out on a 4:3 aspect ratio, using shallow over-the-shoulders, but that lamp must’ve turned Rocky into a lone shooter from Counter Strike, because his centered-forward-facing shot made him look absolutely ridiculous. Anyway back to killing Humphrey Bogart. If the roles were reversed and Jerry took Rocky’s place and Rocky took Jerry’s place, I think Rocky would’ve made a radical preacher. Meanwhile, I feel Jerry is lacking in the morals department.

    I got a vibe from this “gangster” film that brought me back to Dick Tracy comics. So, I’ll add it to the collection.

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