Warner Archive provided me with a free copy of the Blu-Ray I reviewed in this article. The opinions I share are my own.
You know you’re in for a great movie whenever the character played by James Cagney has a catchphrase. In Blonde Crazy, it was “honey” (and if you’ve never had the joy of hearing Cagney’s pronunciation of “honey,” then please treat yourself to it now, because while admittedly it’s not until after you realize it’s not a fluke and he pronounces it that way multiple times that it becomes endearing, hopefully hearing it once is enough).
In Michael Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces it’s the greeting, “What do you hear? What do you say?” that Cagney’s Rocky uses with his friends. Rocky is a gangster, or at least he’s become one after an incident in his youth got him sent to a reform school. Technically his best friend, Jerry (played as an adult by Pat O’Brien), should’ve been sent there, too, but he got away, and while Rocky found himself on a path of crime, Jerry became a priest.
After a prologue, which according to Dana Polan in his commentary was almost dropped because they had trouble casting a young Cagney and O’Brien, the film begins with Rocky getting out of jail after a three-year sentence. His partner and lawyer, Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), doesn’t seem too happy to see him. They had a deal (which is why Rocky agreed to do time in the first place), but now Frazier wants to back out of it.
If the premise sounds familiar, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas would star in a similarly plotted noir nine years later called I Walk Alone. Lancaster played the Rocky role as very bitter and angry. Cagney supplies it with pure charisma, and if Angels with Dirty Faces was a pre-code movie (like The Public Enemy, which Cagney also starred in) that might make more sense, but one of the things that fascinating about Angels with Dirty Faces (and Polan spends a lot of time unpacking this in his commentary) is it wants that moral ending. Gangsters have to be punished and crime can’t be shown to pay, but O’Brien is not the personality that Cagney is, and while he’s not a complete wet blanket (constantly nagging Rocky or making him feel bad about his choices), he’s not the guy who going to inspire the youths in the neighborhood to go straight. If the film really wanted to sell its moral message, it would’ve cast the roles differently.
Luckily, they didn’t give up on the prologue, because Frankie Burke is amazingly convincing as a young Cagney, while the Dead End Kids (so called because they also starred in the film and Broadway show, Dead End) are very natural and authentic. Bogart wasn’t fully established yet as a leading man, so it’s interesting to see him in an uncharacteristic role. Ann Sheridan gets a few spirited scenes in the beginning as Rocky’s love interest but then the film completely drops her for no reason. While her absence isn’t detrimental, it is conspicuous.
Warner Archive’s Blu-Ray also includes a package of shorts from 1938 (including a Looney Tunes cartoon and a newsreel), a Lux Radio Theater program, and a featurette on the film that’s informative but could’ve engaged some POC and female film historians.
Angels with Dirty Faces is available on Blu-Ray starting December 7th from Warner Archive.