Movie Review: Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

DirtyFacesThumbby Brad Nelson   1/4/14
I thought James Cagney’s best film up until now was White Heat. And it may still be. But his most iconic gangster performance is probably as the small-time hood in Angels with Dirty Faces.

James Cagney and Pat O’Brien were two young hoodlums who grew up together in a tough part of New York — Hell’s Kitchen. Jerry Connolly (O’Brien) narrowly escapes the same fate that befalls Rocky Sullivan (Cagney). It’s Rocky who goes to prison and Connolly who ends up becoming Father Connolly.

Rocky eventually does his time and comes back to the old neighborhood where he finds Father Connolly working with a young set of would-be hoodlums that he is trying hard to straighten out. Rocky finds himself with one foot in both worlds, reminiscing with Father Connolly and working with the gang of yutes in church basketball.

But the other foot is battling his present partner in crime, Humphrey Bogart, who plays the crooked lawyer, James Frazier. During Cagney’s last, but not first, stint in prison, it was once again Cagney who took the rap for two people. He comes to Frazier looking for his promised cut of the business…only Frazier ain’t feeling too negotiable.

Co-starring with the stellar cast of Cagney, O’Brien, and Bogart are the group of teenage hoodlums who are well on the way to being full-fledged criminals. Every member of the gang is full of face-slapping, eye-poking personality. This is one of those movies in which the bad guys talk in rat-a-tat-tat old-style gangster fashion, including these yutes who are hilarious every moment they are on the screen.

There’s a minor (mere token) love interest for Cagney in the guise of Ann Sheridan who plays Laury Ferguson. The weak point of this movie is that she plays no significant part in Cagney’s life, one way or the other. But there’s still more than enough angst, double-crossing, assassination attempts, and gunplay to keep this moving rolling. It’s truly fun to watch from start to finish. It has no dry spots.

Cagney gives one of his greatest performances ever. One moment he’s charming the pants off someone…the next he is grotesquely dangerous. He’s a full range of interesting as he weaves his discombobulating criminal element into a character that clearly isn’t all bad. Consider this a must-see movie for any gangster film aficionado, let alone a Cagney fan.

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In New York, the boys Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connelly are best friends and small time thieves. After a robbery, Rocky is arrested and sent to a reformatory school, where he begins his criminal career. Jerry escapes and later becomes a priest. After three years in prison, Rocky is released and demands from his former partner (Bogart) the $100,000.00 he has coming, plus his share in the business, but is betrayed. Meanwhile, he becomes the idol of the street kids in the neighborhood. Although following opposite paths in life, Rocky and Jerry are still friends. When Jerry decides to fight against the corruption, Rocky is put against the wall between his friendship with the priest, and his society in dirty businesses with his criminal partners. More »

Available on DVD ($38.90 new, $14.98 used) or as part of Warner Gangsters Collection on DVD ($18.99 new). Not available for streaming on Netflix.

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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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One Response to Movie Review: Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’ve since read that this is supposedly a kinda-sorta sequel to 1937’s Dead End which also has Humphrey Bogart in it (as the star). And both movies have the same “Dead End” group of criminal yutes. In Angels with Dirty Faces, Bogey plays a crooked lawyer while in Dead End he plays the gangster, Baby Face Martin.

    I’ve seen “Dead End” a couple of times. Although it’s not nearly as riveting as “Angels” (it’s based on a stage play, and it shows), it’s not bad at all.

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