Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). 97 minutes. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring James Cagney (as William “Rocky” Sullivan), Pat O’Brien (as Father Jerry Connolly), the Dead End Kids (as Soapy, Swing, Bim, Pasty, Crab, and Hunky), Humphrey Bogart (as Jim Frazier), Ann Sheridan (as Laury Martin), and George Bancroft (as Mac Keefer).
Angels with Dirty Faces was famously parodied in the Home Alone franchise as Angels with Filthy Souls, an old violent crime film with an outrageous title that the young protagonist Kevin McCallister watches when his parents are out of town. If you have seen one of the Home Alone movies, you might think that violence and the glorification of the gangster are the defining features of the parody noir’s source material. Yet while Angels with Dirty Faces does depict violence and crime, the movie nevertheless features a complex ending that undermines its gangster protagonist’s rebellious, law-breaking streak, making him appear cowardly and weak. It is an essential companion piece to revolutionary movies such as The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932), and Little Caesar (1931), whose suave criminal lead characters Angels with Dirty Faces ultimately rejects.
Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly are young troublemakers in a big city who dabble in crime. One afternoon, Rocky attempts, with Jerry’s help, to rob a freight train, but the law intervenes. Jerry escapes but Rocky is apprehended. Thus begin many years of criminal activity and successive prison sentences for Rocky, whereas Jerry becomes a Roman Catholic priest who mentors a group of juvenile delinquents. When Rocky emerges from prison at long last, he reunites with Jerry and takes a room in the priest’s neighborhood, befriending Jerry’s teenage acquaintances, who come to admire Rocky tremendously.
Rocky tells his lawyer Jim Frazier that he has come to claim a sum of money that was promised to him, not realizing that Jim intends to kill him. After an unsuccessful attempt on his life, Rocky confronts Jim and steals everything in his private safe, including $100,000. But Rocky’s plan to continue to extort money from Jim fails, and in a violent scene Rocky guns down Jim and his associates in a hail of bullets. A police standoff ensues, complete with tear gas, but Jerry rescues Rocky and turns him in to the authorities. When Rocky is sentenced to death, Jerry has a final request: in order to inspire their young friends to be virtuous and turn away from crime, he asks that Rocky behave like a coward at his own execution. Rocky gives an indefinite answer, but on the way to the electric chair, he breaks down in sobs. The papers report on his final moments, and the boys reject him, turning to Jerry for comfort.
I mentioned that Angels with Dirty Faces is not like other gangster films of its time. One of the movie’s first points of departure is its titular image, which encapsulates the idea of a morality fraught with complexity. The title stresses the coexistence of the angelic with the filthy, the virtuous with the malevolent—an overlapping ethical dichotomy that is perhaps made possible by the presence of the sympathetic priest figure, Father Jerry Connolly, who in his streetwise way sees the potential for both good and bad in people. Declaring these intricate mores from the start of the credits and then insisting on developing them as a concept throughout the film is an unusual move in a genre that, especially in its early years, offers us protagonists who are unapologetically vice-laden and at times outright evil.
The title is also remarkable because it seems to apply to almost everyone in the film as a general descriptor. Jerry’s juvenile delinquents (played by the Dead End Kids) are perhaps the most obvious candidates for the dirty angel label, with their goofy nicknames that echo those of the diminutive, benevolent characters in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)—Soapy, Pasty, Hunky, etc. But they are also some of the least appealing embodiments of the movie’s title. Although capable of the sweetness that comes with youthful devotion, they are also twerps, bullies, and thieves, living in squalor with torn clothes and grime on their skin. Much like a poor man’s Three Stooges, they engage in low-grade violence: slapping, poking, and punching each other with exaggerated soundtrack accompaniment. We are clearly meant to be amused, but watching them behave as endearing cherub misfits is an awkward, uncomfortable, and slightly embarrassing experience. Given their cartoon-like behavior, they are hard to empathize with and even harder to pity later in the film when scenes call for them to be serious.
To the boys, Rocky is a hero because of his crimes, someone who radiates toughness, is always in control, and does not get pushed around. They allow him to slap and shove them in his hardboiled fashion, they rush to his side when he requires their brutish assistance, and they secret away stolen loot on his behalf. But while Rocky is a bad influence on the sycophantic young men for most of the movie, it is harder for him to be a seductive influence on us, the audience—at least, not in the way that the studios feared the flashy protagonists of The Public Enemy, Scarface, and Little Caesar would potentially be. This is in part because while those movies make their gangsters look wealthy and slick, Angels with Dirty Faces strives to make Rocky and his environs appear impoverished and run down. As a child, Rocky is shown with his own soot-smeared face. We see the dirt and grunge conceit similarly extended to him when he becomes an adult and takes a room in the boarding house near Jerry’s church. His bed is collapsing, the mattress is thin and stained, the shades are torn, and the masonry is sloppily patched over. Elsewhere his poverty is also on display. He goes about in a daytime suit at times in the evening, even in a fancy nightclub and gambling hall. When he sends out for lunch, it’s sandwiches, beans, and a jar of pickles. When he steals money from Jim Frazier and gives it to one of the boys to hide for him, his fortune ends up buried in a wall under broken bricks and other detritus in a paper envelope. This is not a gangster reaping widespread material gains from his life of vice or, in other words, living the high life.
The movie does a fair amount of work to make Rocky’s circumstances appear less swanky than his film predecessors’, but it also takes pains explicitly and obliquely to establish that Rocky is not simply a nefarious thug—something that further distances him from those other protagonists and increases his similarity to the morally ambiguous youth he, for better or worse, inspires. To that point, late in the movie we are offered a weird scene where Rocky’s base criminal existence is conflated with hints of softer qualities that complicate our evaluation of Rocky’s tough-guy identity. In the penultimate sequence where Rocky kills Jim and fights the police, an arsenal of handguns and Tommy guns is shot, the street swells with police wagons and special law enforcement equipment, and a massive amount of chemical gas is launched against Rocky’s stronghold, which causes his face to be covered with tears. The sight of a weepy, gun-wielding Rocky is decidedly odd, a mixture of the symbolically hardline gangster type with the symbolically vulnerable. Although we know that the tears are present because of the gas, not because of the expression of some deep inner state on Rocky’s part, nevertheless the juxtaposition of violence with weepy sensitivity is unnerving. Associating a violent protagonist at the peak of his anti-social behavior with the display of tender emotions, however misleading, is a highly unusual move for a 1930s crime movie to make, foreshadows Rocky’s emotional end, and is indicative of Angels with Dirty Faces’s commitment to showing us a different kind of gangster.
Accordingly, in the movie’s conclusion, Rocky has an opportunity to redeem himself. Having been apprehended by the police, tried for Frazier’s murder, and sentenced to death, he is led to the execution chamber. We do not see his face for the most part, but we do hear his voice. In agony, he pleads and wails, crying deep, guttural sobs. It is chilling and awful. Jerry, of course, has asked Rocky to break down at the scene of his death for the benefit of the kids back home, but we cannot be sure if Rocky is performing as Jerry requested he do or if this is a genuine moment of cowardice. If he is doing as Jerry asks, pretending to be weak so that the boys will hear about his behavior and reconsider their adoration of him, he is doing a great thing, and we may more easily perceive his good side. In this reading, Rocky finds his angelic qualities through a great sacrifice—transforming people’s perception of him and his legacy in order to save wayward teenage souls.
It is possible, however, that Rocky is not performing, that he is genuinely terrified of death and freely expressing his fear in an embarrassing display that will bring him great shame. If Rocky is truly reacting to his death with cowardice, then he is not intentionally doing a great favor to Jerry and the kids, and he seems less angelic. Yet Rocky’s weakness in that case is also a symptom of his humanity. We might say that whether Rocky is play-acting or behaving genuinely, his end reveals his decency. He is either charitable or afraid, and we can admire the former and understand the latter. Whereas other movie gangsters’ deaths reinforce their worst qualities, Rocky’s death makes him seem more fully like a person.
Whether Rocky is a hero or a coward, his humiliating final moments offer a tremendous opportunity for the audience to further reevaluate the gangster figure in the crime dramas of the 1930s, particularly the Warner Bros. gangster films. Rocky’s end rips apart the mystique of the Depression-era criminal protagonist, who typically goes down in a hail of bullets in the city streets, complimented by potent statements of unrepentance and a fair amount of beauty and style. Consider even a later Cagney movie, White Heat (1949), in which Cagney’s character blows up an entire power plant perched atop one of its towers, screaming into the wind, his madness unbridled and his violent tendencies completely unleashed on the representatives of the law who swarm beneath him. But in Angels with Dirty Faces, the law is in charge in the end, and the gangster in the arms of the law does not explode in the full manifestation of his destructive, anti-human malice, go out on his own terms, or look cool while staring death in the face. Instead, Cagney’s Rocky crumbles, appears weak, and in that way becomes humane. Although the Hollywood Production Code that was enforced when the film was made likely played a role in the creation of that dimension, the film is an example of the complexity that the Code era was capable of achieving. For anyone who is a fan of early crime films, Angels with Dirty Faces is thus required viewing.