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USA 1938
Directed by
Michael Curtiz
97 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Angels With Dirty Faces

By the time this film was made, the moral tide had turned against the tough guy gangster image epitomised by James Cagney in The Public Enemy. The Hays Code (aka the Motion Picture Production Code) which was first published in March 1930 would henceforth exercise a ruling hand over what could and couldn't be shown on the silver screen.

Warners obliged in various ways with this film, not least the piously punitive ending with Father Jerry Connelly (Pat O'Brien, who co-starred with Cagney in 8 films) gazing heavenward with a tear in his eyes as his one-time bosom buddy, Rocky (James Cagney), goes screaming to the electric chair for his sins (albeit with a redemptive twist. Like Cagney's character in The Roaring Twenties, made the following year, Rocky Sullivan is basically a sound guy, more a victim of urban poverty for whom the temptation of easy money is too much than an inherently bad egg. Indicative of a rather superficial script, however, the moralising is shoddy, if not downright hypocritical, as Father Jerry, the film's paragon of virtue, a former street urchin who has found God and the Church refuses Rocky's gift of "dirty" money to build a sports centre for the kids but is willing to have Rocky lie in order to save them from following a similar life of crime,

Typical of the style, Angels goes to considerable lengths to depict the conditions that create crime and, meritorious as that may be, as a result burdens the down-and-dirty thrills typical of the gangster genre with a high degree of sentimentality, particularly in the over-exposure of the Dead End Kids to whom Rocky is both a kind of Fagan and a hero to emulate. Partly this latter aspect was designed to cash in on the success of Crime School, a juvenile delinquent quickie that had been released the previous year to great financial success (it also starred Humphrey Bogart although as a good guy whereas here he is an arch rat, a crooked lawyer who tries to double-cross Rocky and gets his due deserts).

Despite its tendentiousness, Curtiz keeps the film moving along at a brisk pace and with economical style (including a impressive crane shot the opens the film and is re-used later to indicate the passage of time) and Cagney is, as always, a dynamic player. For nostalgia buffs in particular this will be a pleasant diversion.




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