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Overall Rating
4

Awesome: 7.69%
Worth A Look84.62%
Average: 7.69%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 0%

1 review, 7 user ratings


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Angels with Dirty Faces
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by MP Bartley

"Whaddya hear? Whaddya say?"
4 stars

This isn't the James Cagney film where he pushes the grapefruit in his girlfriends face - that's The Public Enemy. And it's not the James Cagney film where he has an unhealthy mother fixation - that's White Heat. And it's also not the James Cagney film where he won the Oscar - that's Yankee Doodle Dandy. No, this is the James Cagney film with one of the greatest endings ever.

Cagney plays Rocky Sullivan, a slum kid who hops trains and engages in petty theft with his best friend, Jerry (Pat O'Brien). However, one such incident goes wrong and Rocky is caught and sent to prison whilst Jerry manages to make it free, resulting in being so guilt ridden over Rocky's fate that he enters the priesthood instead. Rocky quickly gains notoriety and a series of subsequent jail terms, before finally gaining his freedom whereupon he goes to find Jerry. He finds that Jerry is now working in the slums trying to help another bunch of slum children (a collective known as the Dead End Kids) find a better future, a future put in doubt when Rocky enters their lives and becomes their idol - particularly when he finds himself unable to escape his previous life of crime.

'Angels with Dirty Faces' stand apart from most other Cagney gangster flicks, because it is actually very rarely about Rocky's rise to power or the gaining of his reputation. Curtiz's direction is more interested with the effect of the crime and not the actions of it, instead showing a great economy of storytelling by showing Rocky's crime through a spinning montage of guns, champagne and headlines. The majority of the film is instead concerned with how people like Rocky, Jerry and the slum kids have very little alternative than the future they're seemingly railroaded into. Ultimately the only difference between Rocky and Jerry is that they quite literally fell on the different sides of one fence, and as Jerry laments later, they should spare a thought for a boy who "couldn't run as fast as him". This is the same fate that awaits the other slum kids and it adds an unexpected level of poignancy to the film. The film only explodes into violence at the end, and it's a sequence bristling with anger as Rocky, pinned down in a warehouse tries to shoot his way out, as the police throw in smoke grenades at him. It's a viscious moment for Rocky, gunning down policemen, but all the more affecting for Jerry's presence there and his character's pain for Rocky's life and decisions.

O'Brien is a strong presence as Jerry, making the character much more memorable than the slightly boring script allows him to be. But, as with most of his films, Cagney effortlessly steals the show from all round him. More than making up for his small stature, he's a constantly twitching bundle of intensity , snarling at those around him and quite clearly having the time of his life as he intimidates anyone getting in his way. Watching Cagney like this, it becomes apparent just where Joe Pesci has stole his entire career from. Cagney radiates a menancing charm throughout, showing off his often underappreciated comic talents in a bit of slapstick with a girl from his past and a rickety old bed and there's a quietly lovely scene when Rocky tracks Jerry down to the church where he's trying to lead the slum kids in a choir. Rocky's face and body language as he watches is a mixture of amusement, pride and longing tinged with regret as he sees what his past was like, what his best friend's life is now, and what his future could have been like, with Cagney pulling it off superbly.

Humphrey Bogart has a small and unusually weasley part as a duplictious lawyer, but it's a shame that he gets less time with Cagney than the Dead End Kids. As vital to the story as they are, they're still a shrill, overacting annoyance throughout the film - making it even more of a pleasure that James Cagney slapped them around for real during the making of the film when they tried to put him off his lines.

It's the ending of the film however, after the warehouse shootout, that has ensured that 'Angels with Dirty Faces' has become more than a footnote on Cagney's career. Not to spoil it too much for the unknowing, but it hinges on a final request that Jerry poses to Rocky on the way to the electric chair and Rocky's final moments. They're final moments that are shrouded in absolute ambuguity, leaving the viewer to make up their own minds as to what really happened and what was really going through Rocky's mind at the last. It's a moment that is horrifically staged by Curtiz, but it only truly works because Cagney plays it magnificently, never tipping the moment to one truth or another.

Throughout his career, Cagney never revealed what he truly thought of the ending, letting it bask in all its glorious shades of grey. It's an ending that fits the themes of the film perfectly, and stands as one of the greatest endings ever. If the film itself isn't as good, then the ending and Cagney's performance ensures that it's something still that little bit special.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=3322&reviewer=293
originally posted: 01/16/07 21:54:57
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User Comments

9/30/12 keith miron The Electric Chair use to scare me when i was little 4 stars
4/15/09 brian Overrated, like all of Cagney's gangster pictures. 3 stars
5/30/08 PAUL SHORTT WONDERFUL MORALITY STORY, ONE OF CAGNEYS BEST 5 stars
12/21/07 Pamela White not bogeys best but watchable 4 stars
2/09/07 action movie fan good story of dead end kids and differetn paths of cagney and o,brien 4 stars
8/27/04 ranger4e Can't go wrong with a Cagney film. 4 stars
3/03/02 Butterbean I can't watch old flicks like this without laughing at the way they act in those days. 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  26-Nov-1938
  DVD: 25-Jan-2005

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Michael Curtiz

Written by
  John Wexley
  Warren Duff

Cast
  James Cagney
  Pat O'Brien
  Humphrey Bogart
  Ann Sheridan
  George Bancroft



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