If I were to take a straw poll of the most gangster-sounding titles of gangster films, I’d wager money that Angels with Dirty Faces would come out on top. Michael Curtiz directs this moral quandary wrapped up in a gangster bow, and with main man James Cagney as the star, you know you’re gonna get a darn good gangster flick, and that’s pretty much what you’ll end up with. I think, at this point, I’ll happily watch anything James Cagney is in, as long as it’s not absolutely god-awful. That said, there were a few questions I was left with after the film had ended, and I recognized the one big one right away.
Cagney is Rocky Sullivan, a hoodlum put away as a kid for petty larceny only to add to his rap sheet over the years, until he finally gets out after 15 years and heads back to his home neighborhood, reuniting with his childhood friend Jerry, played by Pat O’Brien, who was also with Rocky on the petty larceny charge and only got away because he ran faster. Jerry is now a priest, while Rocky is looking to get back into the gangster game, and the two old friends end up on different sides of a moral conflict when Rocky becomes a hometown hero to a group of young scamps, under Jerry’s watch, looking to follow in Rocky’s footsteps. First off, like most films of the time, this is pretty much all plot and little else, so if the synopsis doesn’t sound like your kind of flick, then you’d probably do best to avoid this one. Everything down to the very structure of the film supports the wisecracking, very-nearly family-friendly gangster plot, so again, if that’s not for you, then neither will this be. That said, for what the film is, it does it very well. Cagney is a joy to watch in one of his typical roles, as always, and this film would also provide an early prominent role for Humphrey Bogart, so there’s a double-plus. On the flip side, the romantic subplot featuring Ann Sheridan was entirely unnecessary and served no purpose to the main action, and the ‘Dead End’ Kids so supportively billed on the poster up there were entirely too one-note. There was a basketball game a good half hour into the film that dragged on a little long, and seemed to be there mostly as a vehicle for the Dead End Kids to act like hoodlums and wiseguys, an act which grew tiresome too quickly. But, other than that, this was pretty decent all around.
This, unfortunately, was yet another one that, while still being a fairly enjoyable gangster film, begged the question of why it was added to the list. Other than being a vehicle for Cagney as well as Curtiz, I couldn’t really come up with anything. It’s mainly to that end that I ended up where I did with this; I liked it, but not enough to solidly recommend it, as a ‘must see’ or not. If you do decide to give it a try, I doubt you’ll end up disappointed, or only mildly so at the very most, but there’s no need to go rushing out to see this one.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10