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.