“Always remember: Don't be a sucker.” Rocky Sullivan
I thought I’d take a time out from gloomy and depressing Noirs where everybody dies in the end to write about something more upbeat and uplifting. Why not a gangster movie? ... Oh wait. Seems I just can’t stay away from gloomy and depressing.
Directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Bros., Angels with Dirty Faces is tough gangster film that doesn’t neglect social issues of the day. In typical Warner Bros. fashion the picture wasn’t just entertainment, it tried to convey a message as well.
As every filmmaker knew it wasn’t easy to put social commentary into films while Joe Breen was looking over your shoulder. Yet, whilst trying to appease the PCA director Michael Curtiz managed to get his message across. And though the Production Code required a moral ending for once it was not a handicap that drove the movie off the cliff in the last act.
Angels benefits from layers and ambiguity as any good movie does. Characters, motivations and issues are not at all clear-cut and many scenes in the movie are up to interpretation.
The 1930s was a time of great change for American society. In 1929, the bottom fell out of the global economy and the Wall Street Crash ushered in the Great Depression. It bankrupted thousands of people, prompting mass unemployment and years of hardship. Formerly prosperous citizens were plunged into lives of poverty and despair. People began to realize that the ideal of The American Dream was perhaps not as realistic as they had once been led to believe.
On top of that the 18th Amendment kicked off one of the most harebrained moral crusades in human history, Prohibition (1920-1933). It was supposed to eliminate drunkenness, crime and other social evils but not surprisingly it backfired spectacularly. The very law whose aim was to enforce morality upon society would in essence to do the very opposite. It turned ordinary people into law-breakers and encouraged more people to drink than ever.
But more than anything people became cynical not only of an inept Government that did nothing to alleviate people’s hardship but of any kind of authority.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. A new type of hero was emerging. Gangsters became the ultimate rebels who refused to accept Depression-imposed deprivations. Obstacles placed in their way they just blasted to bits with rapid machine gun fire. They elbowed their way to the top using the allied rackets of bootlegging, gambling and prostitution. Gangsters were the ultimate self-made men and admiration for the self-made man is something embedded in the American psyche. Gangsters lived the American Dream. So what if their Dream was skewed because it was as pure as the driven, that was better than living in some dreary tenement with peeling plaster on $30 a week. Virtue - that was becoming increasingly clear - was not its own reward. Virtue’s reward was a miserable life in the slums.
It is often taken for granted that Depression era audiences went to the movies to see escapist fare to distract them from their own hard existence. This is not entirely true. Despite MGM’s and Paramount’s best efforts to the contrary, a new mood of gritty realism surfaced in Hollywood that matched the grimness of the times. Most Depression films were grounded in the social realities of the day. It was important for the common people to see that there were others out there struggling just as hard as they were. Audiences loved seeing the gangster stick it to The Man.
Gangsters blazed their way into the cities and the movie theaters. Of course they found themselves in hot water with the censors practically from the start. By necessity the studios had to sell their product to the public as a morality tale to keep Joe Breen happy. But the allure and glamour of crime and lawlessness were barely hidden under a thin veneer of put-upon moral outrage in the shape of prefaces and disclaimers that didn’t sound too convincing.
Despite the purported moral message, the gangster’s life was shown in all its glory… as long as he dutifully breathed his last in a dirty gutter when the credits rolled. Maybe crime didn’t pay in the end, but until then the gangster had a damn good time.
When the PCA finally started to crack down and strictly enforce the stipulations of the Production Code in June 1934, the gangster movie lost its bite and went into a sharp decline. It was hard for a self-respecting gangster out there if he had to fight the Production Code as well as other gangsters.
Like The Roaring Twenties, Angels with Dirty Faces is really a nostalgia piece. Released at the dawn of a new decade, this Post-Code movie came decidedly late to the party. Times were changing and the days of the gangster were numbered. Prohibition had long been repealed, the Depression was almost over and another war was looming on the horizon.
Angels with Dirty Faces is Warner returning to its roots while at the same time doing penance for past transgressions. The “crime does not pay” homily in the beginning can be dispensed with, the movie drives that point home with a vengeance in the last scene.
As a true Warner movie, Angels doesn’t shy away from grittiness. The studio had always had a working-class aesthetic. The cramped and dirty reality of New York City’s slums comes to life vividly. Overcrowded tenements, laundry hanging out in the streets, people who obviously haven’t had a bath in weeks … this is what reality looked like even if artifice had to stand in for it. The movie is studio filmmaking at its best.
The story begins in the 1920s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, with two boyhood chums - angels with dirty faces - Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien) trying to break into a freight railroad car to steal some fountain pens. This prologue section not only establishes the bond between the two boys, but also the differences between them. Rocky is a born trouble maker. He’s the instigator of the robbery, he’s the one who already takes things that do not belong to him.
The robbery goes wrong, Rocky is caught while Jerry escapes. Insisting on taking the rap, Rocky is sent to reformatory school and his life spirals out of control. He sinks deeper and deeper into a life of crime. For the next fifteen years he’s constantly in and out of the clink, making a name for himself as gangster. He then returns to his old neighborhood where he meets Jerry again who’s become a priest.
Rocky also still has a score to settle with former friend and crooked lawyer Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) who owes him 100G because once again Rocky took one for the team. Frazier tries to double-cross him, he even sends the hit squad after Rocky, but Rocky is too smart. He muscles his way into Frazier’s organization.
To no-one’s surprise Cagney is phenomenal in his role. It earned him an Oscar nomination. Rocky is at the same time cocky, brash, menacing, violent, funny and full of confidence and swagger. There was always an incredible intensity and vitality about Cagney and though he was a little guy, he seemed larger-than-life. Rocky loves the money, power and glamour the gangster lifestyle affords him.
A gang of local kids - the Dead End Kids - adopt Rocky as their mentor. They’re gangster wannabes with a bad case of hero-worship. The Dead End Kids were fairly big stars at the time but they are the only jarring note in an otherwise perfect film. Their antics are often too intrusive.
Cagney charms the audience effortlessly. You simply can’t resist him. The guy is like a blunt force trauma to the head.
As opposed to Cagney’s other gangster portrayals, there is a core of humanity in Rocky Sullivan. He has redeeming qualities. We know this guy means business when we see him ruthlessly dealing with fellow gangsters but there’s another side to him. Rocky clearly has one weak spot - his care for others. He’s unwaveringly loyal to his childhood friend Jerry. He also shows tenderness in the brief romantic interludes with Ann Sheridan.
When Rocky comes back to his old neighborhood after 15 years, it is as if the exiled has returned home. He’s looking for sanctuary and a place to belong, something he never had. It’s just that Rocky wants it both ways. He doesn’t want to leave his old life behind. Rocky wants to compartmentalize his life — on the one hand he wants to be friends with Father Jerry and support his ministry while on the other hand he’s loath to turn over a new leaf and give up the perks of his gangster life.
The movie makes no bones about stating that once you’re in the mills of the judicial system, you won’t be able to catch a break ever again. Reform school didn’t reform Rocky, it just put him through the ringer and should have instead been called Prep School for Crimes and Other Misdemeanors. Once he’s out, Rocky embarks on a life of crime and graduates from petty larceny to manslaughter and racketeering pretty quickly.
This is Warner putting in their two cents in the nature vs. nurture debate, laying the blame for Rocky’s descent (or ascent) into crime squarely on poverty, social dysfunction and an ineffectual judicial system. "Society is to blame” is a very Depression-era view. We find it too in The Public Enemy and Dead End (again with the Dead End Kids) which clearly espoused none too subtly the thesis that the environment shapes a person’s character and is to be held responsible for any kind of antisocial behavior.
If this is 100% true is debatable. Rocky goes back to crime over and over again every time he gets released and it’s clearly not because of desperation. Between stints in prison he lives the high life because he loves it. We don’t see a man who desperately wants to go straight and is thwarted. Rocky is simply a career criminal who’s not cut out for civilian life.
For Curtiz though there’s another crucial factor in a person’s life. Pure dumb luck. Or, from Father Jerry’s standpoint, there but for the Grace of God go I. Rocky and Jerry share a history and societal DNA, so how can they turn out so differently? Life dealt them both an equally lousy hand. In the film’s final line Father Jerry addresses exactly this point.
“All right, fellas… let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”
It all boils down to one fact. By getting away Jerry was given the opportunity to right his wrongs while Rocky couldn’t run fast enough on the day it counted most and was put through the system which set him off on his course. The line between saint and sinner is a fine, and undoubtably, arbitrary one.
What would have happened had their roles been reversed?
Pat O’Brien has the rather thankless task of making moral uprightness at least marginally bearable. Shining paragons of virtue can be hard to take but he acquits himself quite well. Of course he’s lacking the excitement of Rocky, but then again that is the point. The voice of righteousness is by necessity boring. His speechifying is occasionally heavy-handed though he keeps it just this side of too patronizing.
Jerry still has enormous affection for his old friend, but he also has no illusions about him.
Jerry knows he’s nowhere near as compelling to the kids as Rocky. “Whatever I teach them, you show me up. You show them the easiest way is with a racket or a gun.” He warns Rocky that he won’t let these angels with dirty faces get corrupted by crime. So far their dirtiness is only on the surface, the grime still can be washed away. An all-out media crusade to stop Rocky and other assorted riffraff is Jerry’s idea of fighting back but when has preaching ever helped?
Ann Sheridan plays Cagney’s love interest but her character is underdeveloped as her role was supposed to be much bigger initially. It is interesting to note though that before Rocky comes back Laury was married to a crook who met his end in a shoot-out with the cops. For a smart and nice girl, she sure knows how to pick ‘em.
The remarkably staged shootout near the end packs a punch, even today. It is fantastically filmed. Outnumbered and outgunned, Rocky makes his last stand against the entire police department in an old factory, bombarded by tear gas and machine gun fire. For the viewer it is very important to keep in mind that Rocky here is shown as a man who doesn’t know fear. He defiantly laughs in the face of danger. In most gangster movies this scene would have been the climax, and a good one it would have been too, with Rocky going out in a blaze of glory. Not so here. The movie bothers to go a little further.
Nobody who’s ever seen the ending will ever forget it. It is one of the best ever to come out of Hollywood and unparalleled in any gangster movie. Rocky is eventually captured, can’t beat the murder charges and is sentenced to the chair. Father Jerry goes to see him in prison and makes a desperate plea: Rocky has to pretend to “turn yellow” on the long march to the electric chair. He’s supposed to plead for mercy while he's dragged to the electric chair. If the kids know that Rocky died a coward, they will be disillusioned and may stop hero-worshipping him. Cagney incredulously refuses and wonders how his best friend can ask him to pretend to go out like a coward and throw away his reputation, his pride and his courage which is all that he has left. But Jerry wants Rocky to do the right thing for once in his life and show a different sort of courage. “The kind that only you and I and God know about. I want you to let them down. They’ve got to despise your memory.” Jerry knows he cannot save Rocky, but he may be able to save the angels with dirty faces.
Rocky starts off on his “last mile”, still unbowed and defiant to the last, even punching a guard. Then when he enters the chamber, Rocky breaks down. His blood-curdling, gut-wrenching screams when he’s dragged to the electric chair - supposedly refusing to die like a man - are truly horrifying.
The question if Rocky actually turns coward in his last minutes has been much discussed. It's pointless though as film historian Dana Polan points out in his DVD commentary. Just before Rocky enters the chamber we see a close-up of his face and there is nothing but grim and steely determination on it. That look signifies that the courage is still there at the end. After everything we’ve learned about Rocky, right up to the final moments before he enters the chamber, the logical conclusion can only be that he pleads for mercy only in response to Jerry’s request. Looking at his face, this is not a man who’s about to fall apart, this is a man who's finally doing the right thing. Rocky trades his reputation as a gangster for salvation - his own and the kids’. Talk about a sucker.
Cagney famously said he played the scene ambiguously so the viewer could decide for himself. But that doesn’t wash.
For the film to work Rocky cannot turn coward in the end. Rocky needs to be redeemed and the only way this is possible is by giving Jerry his headline: "Rocky Dies Yellow.” Having him truly be a coward would invalidate everything Rocky stood for.
This is one of the few times where the Production Code worked in the movie’s favor. It is incredibly subversive. Curtiz abided by the Code that evil must be punished, but Rocky was grand and heroic even in death. He kept his self-respect - even if only he and Jerry know it - AND he did the right thing. Curtiz had it both ways. The audience never feels that Rocky deserves his fate though the Code wants to make us believe it. We still love the guy.
Curtiz also undercuts the principles of the Code when he lets Jerry take a path that should go against his clerical ethics. Jerry lies to the kids. For a priest this is still considered a sin, even if he did it for a good cause. But his reasons are still self-serving.
Even in death Rocky was larger than life and we all know guys like him don’t die, they just go home.