Aljean Harmetz, in his 1993 book Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of "Casablanca,” cites director Michael Curtiz as having an almost totally “visual” interpretation of a film. Harmetz states that Curtiz once even claimed to not care very much about character, saying instead that his pacing was so quick that there was no time for development. It is often argued, in rebuttal, that Curtiz used his directorial style to influence character aspects and would place his characters in position for a broader purpose.
With 1938’s Angels With Dirty Faces, Curtiz handles nothing but character development with Warner’s look at the nature vs. nurture question. The gangster melodrama takes shots at the notion of a feeble justice system, social dysfunction, and poverty. It also attempts to unknot the machines of corruption that kept the whole squalid situation going. In essence, Angels is a morality play of the highest order.
James Cagney is Rocky Sullivan. Grown up from the slums and busted cold on a day when he couldn’t run from the fuzz fast enough, Sullivan’s life of crime found its roots in the coil of reform schools and juvenile detention centres. Toughened up by tougher nuts, Rocky emerges from prison ready to take what’s his. A front-page gangster with screen idol status, Sullivan reunites with his old pal Jerry (Pat O’Brien). Jerry, now a priest, has taken a distinctly different path since that auspicious day and one might imagine fortune (or God) to have smiled upon him.
The relationship between Jerry and Rocky forms the focus of the film and all of the other action revolves around the dichotomy. When Rocky encounters the next generation of street kid thugs, played by the Dead End Kids, he marvels at their sharp sensibilities. While Jerry works hard at trying to save their souls, Rocky is content to be a streetwise role model to the little punks. Fate looms, looking to split Rocky and Jerry once more. This time, the division will occur at the crossroads of morality and friendship.
Humphrey Bogart also stars as a crooked lawyer looking to dupe Rocky out of his share of some stolen plunder, and Ann Sheridan plays a caring love interest.
Cagney swirls skilfully around each character, playing well off of the fine actors with his own hitched shoulders and innate magnetism. He brings a certain sense of kindliness to the role as well, infusing subtler tendencies in certain moments that bring a wealth of vigour to Rocky Sullivan. The way he happily smiles when walking past gambling machines, almost reveling in the licentiousness of the High Life, shows his energy.
Pat O’Brien is good as the other side of the coin. He is frank, blunt, and two-fisted. A rough, tough priest, O’Brien’s Father Jerry Connelly isn’t afraid to put a sucker down. Yet he wants what’s best for the kids and he wants to help them break out of what he sees as the inexorable certainty of a life on the streets. Jerry’s existence, toiling in the soot of the slums, isn’t an easy one and his life of sacrifice is made all the more affecting when he turns down a large sum of money because he knows where it came from. More than anything, Connelly can’t have his old friend poisoning those kids.
Angels With Dirty Faces is filled with little details that sharpen the image and develop the story. Curtiz directs his film keenly, but is never flashy. Sequences, such as the basketball game, have a sense of intensity and character that springs from the screen naturally. Curtiz appears, by most accounts, to purely let things roll as plainly and pleasingly as possible. He captures the nature of street life expressively and effortlessly, allowing the Dead End Kids to dwell in their world without cheap parlour tricks and giving Rocky a place in it without forcing things.
This gangster melodrama has aged incredibly well, too. The throwback street speech (“I didn’t say a woid, promise!”) and hooligan shtick still fits like a glove and the tone of the film is never maudlin or theatrical. While certainly a victim to the Code in its need to tone down the obvious police corruption and offer a “crime doesn’t pay” style culmination (with an elegant and smart twist, of course), Angels With Dirty Faces still manages to be unendingly pointed and pertinent today.