ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES

(1938)
With James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, George Bancroft, Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, Huntz Hall, Gabe Dell
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Black and White
Reviewed by JL and JB

There's Bogey... let's go make fun of his lisp!    ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES is in many ways the best of Warner Bros.'s gangster melodramas of the 1930s.  It boasts every clich√© of such films, but does so with such gusto and conviction you hardly notice.  The Dead End Kids make their second screen appearance in their pre-Bowery Boys days, Pat O'Brien plays a priest for the first time (there was a time when he didn't play a priest?), and Humphrey Bogart is solid in yet another gangster role essayed during his pre-stardom period of second leads and odd character roles.  But they're all nearly reduced to window dressing alongside one of James Cagney's most brilliant and nuanced performances.  Before Cagney's portrayal of Rocky Sullivan, few screen gangsters had been presented with so much backstory, or so much justification for their actions and temperament.  As Rocky's character is transformed by the bitter blows and ironies of life, Cagney continues to add layers to Rocky's persona and conveys the weight of Rocky's emotional emotional history in every line he delivers.  Watch THE PUBLIC ENEMY or WHITE HEAT to see what a great screen personality Cagney was.  Watch ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES or THE ROARING TWENTIES to see what a great actor he was. 5 - JL


     Also reduced to window dressing was the lovely and talented Ann Sheridan.

     A few years ago, I decided to have a bunch of friends sign my acoustic guitar with a Sharpie marker, just to make it look cool like Willie Nelson's. One of my closest friends, name of Kevin, prefaced his signature with the phrase "I've been waiting fifteen years to do this!", a reference to Ann Sheridan's classic moment when she pulls Rocky Sullivan's hat down over his forehead.  Needless to say, Kevin and I were big Cagney fans, and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES was our favorite Cagney movie.  I don't know how many times we watched it together, whenever it was on television, but we had the entire script memorized.  Even today, I can get a laugh out of him just by saying "And me with dis in me shoit!" (which is Hollywood New Yawkese for "And me with this in my shirt!", a line uttered by one of the Dead End Kids in the film).

     One time, when Cagney was still with us in this world, Kevin and I both sat down and each wrote a letter to him along with pictures we hoped he would sign.  Kevin's began with "Dear Mister Cagney:  What do you hear, what do you say?".  Mister Cagney signed the pictures we sent him, and I feel confident enough to speak for my friend and say that they are the best thing either of us have in our collection, with the possible exception of a guitar pick used by Keith Richard of the Rolling Stones, which my friend Kevin will probably be buried with.  I also have autographs from tennis legend Steffi Graf (whom I actually named my guitar after), Velvet Underground founder Lou Reed, Laurel and Hardy producer Hal Roach and Cagney's fellow Warner Brothers star Ida Lupino, but nothing tops the thrill of having a Cagney autographed photo hanging on my wall.  

     If I haven't got around to talking about ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, it is probably because the above says it all:  it is still one of my top ten films, and just writing about it like this makes me want to see it all over again. 5 - JB

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SEQUEL

Angels Wash Their Faces (1939)

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