Angels With Dirty Faces

By on January 11, 2010

Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly were tough kids who grew up together in Hells Kitchen, one of the toughest sections of New York City.

Early on, Rocky gets sent to reform school, where he hones his criminal skills to a razors edge. Jerry, who had escaped from the law, goes straight and becomes a priest. As adults, they reunite in the old neighborhood: Jerry works with the kids who, like he and Rocky, could end up on either side of the law. Rocky is quite the opposite; a hardened criminal looking for a safe place to stay till he can get back into his old racketeering organization, something that his old partner isn’t anxious to have happen. Lots of rapid fire wisecracks, roughhousing and gunfire ensues.

Cagney’s brilliant performance as Rocky won him his first major film award, the 1938 New York Film Critics Award for best actor. It is frequently forgotten that Cagney won this award four years before his Oscar win for “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. “Angels with Dirty Faces” was the high point of Cagney’s gangster roles, and it drives home how much of a struggle it must have been for Cagney to get out of gangster mode, and why his portrayal of George M. Cohan was such a striking change for his fans.

The story of principally deals with how Bogart and his new boss, Mac Keefer, have gotten control of over $100,000 dollars (about twenty million in buying power today), that belongs to Cagney. Cagney wants it back, and when Bogart and Bancroft keep putting him off he uses strong arm methods to force them into line. Eventually things blow up, and Cagney ends up in a gun battle that leaves behind a dead cop. He is tried and found guilty for this murder, and goes to the death house. This leads to one of the most frightening moments in Cagney’s film career: when we see his final moments when being taken to the electric chair to be strapped in. A scene you will not easily forget.

The Dead End Kids terrorized the set during shooting. They threw other actors off with their ad-libbing, and once cornered costar Humphrey Bogart and stole his trousers. But they didn’t figure on James Cagney’s street-bred toughness. The first time Leo Gorcey pulled an ad-lib on Cagney, the star stiff-armed the young actor right above the nose. From then on, the gang behaved.

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Because of the controversy over gangster films, the film was banned outright in Denmark, China, Poland, Finland, and parts of Canada and Switzerland.

To play Rocky, James Cagney drew on his memories of growing up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. His main inspiration was a drug-addicted pimp who stood on a street corner all day hitching his trousers, twitching his neck, and repeating, “Whadda ya hear! Whadda ya say!” Those mannerisms came back to haunt Cagney. He later wrote in his autobiography, “I did those gestures maybe six times in the picture. That was over thirty years ago – and the impressionists have been doing me doing him ever since.”

A montage features a shot of gangsters bombing a storefront. This shot is actually an alternate angle of the bombing of a store in The Public Enemy (1931).

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