Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

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  • directed by Michael Curtiz
  • starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Pat O’Brien, Ann Sheridan, the Dead End Kids
  • a priest tries to stop a gangster from corrupting a group of street kids.

“What earthly good is it for me to teach that honesty is the best policy when all around they see that dishonesty is a better policy?”

Hands down the funniest thing about this movie was that at one time the acting collective known as The Dead End Kids existed. The group was made up of New York street-tough teens that were recruited for a play and then brought to Hollywood by Samuel Goldwyn. They then starred in six major Warner Bros. productions in the couple of years surrounding 1938, completely ran amok vandalizing sets, and had such a penchant for improvising dialogue to throw opposing actors off that James Cagney actually resorted to a slap in the face to set them straight. Much like in the movie itself, the kids may have felt they had free range to pry other actors, but in Cagney they saw an authority with plenty of 30s-style street cred, and they dare not pry further.

Hands down the most depressing part of the movie was trying to keep up with the psyche of Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan, a career criminal that was raised in juvie for street crimes and was never able to escape the lifestyle. Did he even want to? He eventually met the Dead End Kids and took on a mentor role, alternating between teaching them manners and showing them the “way it’s done” when it comes to crime. There was a great basketball scene in which Rocky referees the kids as they carry out a game that features 1000% more tripping, punching, and smack talking as it does dribbling. It soon becomes clear that with a complete lack of positive role models in their lives the kids look up to Rocky, who can easily steer them into safer territory, yet fails, as his shady dealings eventually catch up to him. The one thing he can do for them, at the urging of his old partner in crime and now priest Jerry Connolly, is break down moments before his execution and show remorse.

It was surprising to read about the ending and see that there’s been debate about if Rocky truly broke down at the end, or if it was to show the kids that any road beats the one that leads to capital punishment. Well, obviously it was a calculated move, but taken either way it puts on display the same character trait. After an entire life of deviance and delinquency, Rocky Sullivan cared bout something/anything all along. There was a core of decency to him that we rarely got to see. Whether you believe it was compassion for the future of the kids or a legitimate desire to continue living in any fashion possible, it didn’t matter in the end. He wished it would’ve ended differently, yet he lost control and the lights were out.

Special shout out to Ann Sheridan, who didn’t have too much to work with here but was a commanding presence. Also, if you were making a movie around this era and needed a convincing death scene, you could have done a lot worse than Humphrey Bogart, who sold the hell out of those couple of bullets. First lesson of movie death scene 101, if you’re standing near a bar and get shot, you god damn better take down a few bottles and glasses with you as you plummet to the ground clutching your chest.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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