Cinerama: Angels with Dirty Faces

Posted: September 12, 2009 in Cinerama

Angels with Dirty Faces
By Mike Derderian

“Do the crime and death will come before its time,” an executioner whispered in the ears of a condemned man before pushing the stool upon which the murderer stood. The criminal was hanged and justice was served, history will say.

“Whether we were angels with dirty faces or devils with clean faces we all shall be punished one day,” a mocking bird lurking on the hanging tree chirped.

It is written in the decaying books of dictated history that great men and sometimes criminals faced the axe of the executioner with defiant hearts; but Rocky Sullivan, the fearless hoodlum, teen icon and protagonist in the 1938 crime classic Angels with Dirty Faces, never knew that he’d have to walk to the electric chair pretending to be a yellowbelly coward. Excuse me, but I meant crawl and if you have seen the finale you would know what I mean.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, this 97 minute graphic cult drama stars James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, William Tracy, Frankie Burke, George Bancroft, Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Gabriel Dell, Huntz Hall, Bernard Punsly, Joe Downing and Pat O’Brien as Father Jerome “Jerry” Connelly, a priest and a close childhood friend of William “Rocky” Sullivan (Cagney).

Angels with Dirty Faces is a story about fraternal love, betrayal, Murder (spelled with a capital M) and sacrifice. It is about two men: Rocky and Jerry, whom both grew up together in one of New York’s toughest areas: Hell’s Kitchen. Smells like something is already cooking.

As youngsters, Rocky (a young Burke) and Jerry (a young Tracy) spent most of their time in the streets, where they learned the ropes of toughening up a living. After being caught in a serious offense Rocky is eventually sent to reform school, where young men are supposed to be rehabilitated, but in Hollywood movies they end up instead coming out as vicious and malign blood thirsty men, who are twice as bad.

Jerry, thanks to Rocky’s discretion, is given the slip and as a result avoids being sent to reform school. Given the chance of a different life, Jerry grows up to become a priest, who likes to help out the neighborhood boys and keep them on the right side of the law and become part of society.

The storyline brilliantly—and quite realistically—exposes how man is sometimes molded into who he is and how he is hurled towards the wrong U-turn in life. We are not who we are born, we are what we do and if Jerry was sent to the same reform school Rocky was sent to, the latter would have had a vicious partner in crime. Probably nicknamed Jerry “Jagged Edge Machete.”

Hell’s Kitchen is probably one of the worst depicted places in New York—its either that or the cinematography was simply superb. The grimness of Hell’s Kitchen’s dark alleys and the muddled gang hideouts provided the movie with an unflinching tone of sorrow with an overdose of anger.

Rocky and Jerry’s paths entwined once again as both of them tried to reign the Dead End Kids, a group of young delinquents living it out in the street. Jerry is trying to guide them into safety and ward off their minds away from the glamorous image of gangsters present in the cocky Rocky.

Cagney’s portrayal of the paternal figure for the Dead End Kids is haunting and is a key element in the film’s tragic ending. His friendship with the lost boys proves pivotal in their own salvation wrought to them by the resourceful but
compassionate priest.

Rocky is an icon to them and to many more and his bitter and cowardly demise destroys whatever notions they had about the heroics of gangsters like Rocky, who was different from the others.

“What earthly good is it for me to teach that honesty is the best policy when all around they see that dishonesty is the better policy? That the hoodlum and the gangster is looked up to with the same respect as the successful businessman or the popular hero. You and the Fraziers and the Keefers and all the rest of those rotten politicians you’ve got in the palm of your hand. Yes, and you’ve got my boys too,” Father Connelly tells Rocky after refusing to receive a donation from his childhood friend.

Jerry has become an avid crime fighter and his reputation as a social reformist in the neighborhood is growing. Rocky’s partners in crime James Frazier, the sleeze-bag-of-a-lawyer (Bogart) and Mac Keefer (Bancroft) fear that the priest’s reform and salvation plans are bad for business. So they plan to kill him but to their bad luck Rocky overhears their diabolical plan and kills them both in cold blood.

Needles to say Bogart’s obnoxious character dies like a rat.

The beautiful and charming Ann Sheridan, who portrayed Rocky’s love interest, Laury Ferguson, was a breath of fresh air to the film’s plot that was packed with nothing but malice, poverty and suffering. The Dead End Kids’s variable performance and characterization was enjoyable. Back then The Dead End Kids were a troupe of actors.

Angels with Dirty Faces received a Best Director (Michael Curtiz) and a Best Original Story (Rowland Brown) Oscar nomination. Cagney’s powerful performance at the film’s finale was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar Award but he lost it to Spencer Tracy’s performance in Boys Town in 1939.

After a prolonged police chase, a climactic assassin shot out in a pharmacy and a hold up in a deserted factory, Rocky is busted and send to jail. On trial he is found guilty and given the electric chair, which means death by electrocution.

In the slammer and right before he is sent to death Jerry asks Rocky to pretend to be a coward in a final step that will save The Dead End Kids and clear any delusional heroic ideas kids and teenagers have about him.

“Suppose I asked you to have the heart… to be scared… Suppose at the last minute the guards dragged you out here screaming for mercy. Suppose you went to the chair yellow,” Jerry appeals to Rock, who angrily replies, “Yellow—Hey! What’s the matter with you Jerry?”

Must-see-scene: the finale when Rocky is led to electrocution, which is the best scene cinema history thanks to its intensity, realism and James Cagney’s exceptional acting skill. But will Rocky do it or will he die a gangster?

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