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ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES; A GANGSTER FILM THAT SHOWS NOT THE RISE TO POWER BUT THE DEMISE OF IT. Unlike the famous gangster films of it's era, where we are presented with a tale of a rise to power and then the demise (like that of SCARFACE) we are shown a character who has been less than a leader, a simple god-like figure to a group of naive young boys, a man who has limits and understands his own weaknesses, a painted-over figure with an arrogant face and an innocent man underneath, an ordinary man who wanted to be king. 

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THE FILM IS ONE OF CAGNEY'S BEST. It's also regarded as one of the best gangster films of all time. It has the prime archetype of a Warner Bros. gangster & crime melodrama, with a visual balance that establishes the hard-bitten gangster dramatics, and layered with a warm touch of social conscience, with morality and religiosity that shows the range in which our esteemed cast can reach.

IT'S THE STORY OF TWO YOUTHS, in nineteen-twenty two boys attempt to rob a railroad car. The boys break into a freight railroad car and steal some fountain pens. Once they are spotted by a railroad inspector, the two boys run for it. Those boys are Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly. Jerry ends up escaping on the account of simply running faster and Rocky, who isn't so lucky, gets caught. Once caught he is sent to reform school. In a montage of images, Rocky graduates to prison as he enters a life of crime, with bootlegging, gamblings, manslaughter, and gang rivalry. 

FIFTEEN YEARS LATER ROCKY IS arrested for a crime he has committed with a crooked attorney, James Frazier, played by Humphrey Bogart. He is promised by Frazier that when he is released after taking the rap, he will be paid $100,000 from the heist the two had pulled. At the end of his sentence, he returns to his old neighborhood and visits the church where his old friend Jerry is now Father Jerry and serves as a parish priest, the same church that the boys had been altar boys together twenty years prior. Rocky hasn't seen Jerry for fifteen years and greets his childhood friend with his trademark greeting, one of my favorite catchphrases:


FATHER JERRY ALSO FACES THE challenges of teaching young men like Rocky when he was a young kid working with tough, neighborhood boys, trying to make them into decent citizens, without a life of crime. With the help of a recreation center, he explains the he "keeps the kids from becoming", but before he can finish that sentence, Rocky says, "hoodlums like me." When Rocky tells him that he plans to rent a room close to the church, he tells him that he will attend Mass on Sunday: "Yeah, sure. I'll help you with the collection."

ROCKY THEN GOES TO HIS RENTED ROOM and renews his acquaintance with the neighborhood girl, Laury, played by Ann Sheridan. She is the manager of the apartment building. She recognizes him when he explains that he was referred to the building by Father Jerry, she walks up to him and slaps him, and telling him: "I've waited fifteen years to do that!" After all the years as children, when he used to tease her, endlessly. 

JAMES CAGNEY performed the pugnacious career criminal with such charm and energy, giving the character emotional layers and depth, all while taking from his own upbringing in the city to give substance to his character. He's immortal in this role, creating one of the indelible characterizations of nineteen-thirties cinema. Pat O' Brien, who's performance as Father Jerry is the best of his career, with a Spencer Tracy-like essence of the quiet authority figure that, paired with intelligent writing, makes this character speeches enormously affecting, rather than downgrading the other side, he's mild-mannered and compassionate. The two are perfect counterparts.

ROCKY THEN VISITS the El Toro Club to see his associate Frazier to collect his promised cash. Frazier says he'll have the money in one week, but hands Rocky five-hundred in spending money in advanced. Rocky instantly wants to join forces: "Tell me where I come in? What business you want me to handle? What parts of town? And what my cut is?" Frazier shakes his head, and explains he's got it "all wrong." He has a new partner. Rocky doesn't care about it: "I'm not taking up with anybody but you. You figure it out for yourself. I'm taking up with you where I left off. That was the agreement and we're gonna stick to it. Got it?"

AS ROCKY WALKS BACK THOUGH the neighborhood, he is picked as a "sucker" and pickpocketed, his wallet taken by the tough "Dead End" gang, a bunch of boys that Jerry works with. Rocky follows them to their dark basement hideout, walks in on them, and threatens them with a fake gun in his coat pocket: "You're all covered...Say your prayers, mugs." He takes back his cash and shows them his initials in carved many years before. Because of his criminal exploits, the boys idolize him and regard him with almost fanatical hero worship when he shares his criminal exploits and experiences: "Never bother anybody in your own neighborhood. You kids got a lot to learn."

ROCKY INVITES THE GROUP back to his room for food. When Jerry comes in and tells the group he and Rocky used to be old pals in the hideout together. Then he offers the boys a challenge: to join activities such as the athletic programs, such as basketball - which is not as ideal to them as continuing their criminal antics. One of the kids' remarks: "What do you think we are? A bunch of creampuffs or something?" Rocky, seeing his influence over the group, dares the gang members to play basketball. On the side of the court, Rocky meets Laury again and learns that she is a social worker. He thinks she is quite a "snappy-lookin' dish":


A MEMORABLE SCENE COMES NEXT: the basketball game with the church group, where their new god-like mentor coaches them the rules. The gang enjoys themselves and asks Father Jerry to set up another match the following day. Other unforgettable scenes include that of the prologue, and the shootout sequence strewn with sweat, bullets, and exploding tears gas canisters. And the scenes with Ann Sheridan are also wonderful, as a bruised widow drawn to Rocky depside her better judgment.

AFTER A FEW YEARS OF being careful about making gangster films, thanks to that of the code, Hollywood finally challenged the code and experimented with finding the right balance of gangster-like violence, gritty and outrageous, with morals for the code office to accept. 

ONCE ROCKY REALIZES he has been double-crossed by Frazier, he holds him up in his garage and takes two-thousand dollars from his safe, along with bank account books and other records linking the corrupt city politicians that Frazier works with. Rocky forces Frazier to call Keefer and promise to pay him the $100,000 owed to him the next day. He then hides most of the cash in his apartment, hiding them in the bedposts, the other half of it is given to the gang of kids, a reward of sorts. During this time, Father Jerry is disappointed not only in Rocky but also in the gang of boys, as they missed the second basketball game and were found at a local pool hall, passing out beer to everyone and tossing around dollar bills, emulating Rocky's criminal ways, sitting in a smoke-filled room.

AFTER PROPOSING TO LAURY the head down to town to celebrate, in the El Toro Club, where Frazier is also located. Frazier questions him about the accounts he took from the safe. Rocky uses them as "very good insurance, just in case you boys decide to change your minds." Rocky demands his original agreement 50% of his share of everything. Blackmailed, Frazier agrees. Rocky begins what he believes is a new and better life, promising his new gal a life without work. He also sends Father Jerry an envelope of $10,000 in cash, to help with the future recreation center. 

"Dear Father Connelly: Enclosed please find $10,000 in cash as my donation for your future recreation-center. Good luck. A FRIEND"

FATHER JERRY REFUSES THE MONEY, as it was the result of a gang deal. He does not want "to build it upon rotten foundations." Father Jerry starts a clean-up media campaign against corruption. His courageous fight means condemning his friend Rocky and his crooked business associates.

"Priest Declares War on Underworld Vice." 
"Investigate Rocky!'" Is Citizens' Demand."

DIRECTOR MICHAEL CURTIZ, known for such films as CASABLANCA, ROBIN HOOD, and MILDRED PIERCE, and other classics as well, directed this film with remarkable craftsmanship that is influenced by German expressionism, but never as deep so that it doesn't come across thick or leaden, but with enough influence that it keeps things light and poignant, focusing on the effect of crime and not the actions of it. It's a fast-talking, gun-toting film, riddled with bullets and memorable scenes and characters. 

THE REFORM CAMPAIGN starts rapidly within the city and thousands of people support the effort. On the eve of the grand jury investigation into the corruption and it's leaders, Rocky's crooked, double-crossing business associates, Frazier and Keefer, plot to assassinate Jerry. Rocky overhears his and tries to protect his childhood friend. Rocky has there way with them and moments later a flock of police arrive for a wild chase. After an energetic scene, Jerry is allowed to enter the building and speak with his friend.

ROCKY WANTS TO HOLD OFF THE POLICE, but when he sees that his revolver is without bullets, he agrees to come down with Jerry, but then turns on him and uses him as a shield. Rocky pushes Jerry down when they emerge on the street and makes one last attempt to flee on foot. Rocky is finally apprehended and arrested when he is wounded in the leg.

IT ALL LEADS TO THE END SCENE, am an ambiguous climax that still starts a fierce debate. When asked about the scene decades later, Cagney says he chose to play it in such a way so that the audience could make their own decision as to whether or not he was faking. An end scene that makes the film come together in the nerve-hitting climax, perfectly done. A scene that unforgettable, bathed in the dark, oppressive shadows, with the haunting score. Rocky then shakes Jerry's hand goodbye.