A priest tries to stop his oldest friend, a career criminal, from
corrupting a group of kids he's trying to save from a wicked life.
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by John Wexley and Warren Duff
Starring James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Humphrey Bogart,
Ann Sheridan, George Bancroft, Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan,
Leo Gorcey, Gabriel Dell, Huntz Hall, Bernard Punsly
Oscar Nominations - Best Actor (James Cagney),
Best Director, Best Original Story
Angels with Dirty Faces is one of the foundations of film noir and gangster movies. It contains so much obvious influence, and is one of 20th century master James Cagney's most recognizable works. But it isn't perfect. It's got a story that drags at times and puts focus on the wrong people. It criminally underuses Humphrey Bogart in his prime and is fairly predictable. But there's something about Cagney that draws you in. I saw it when I watched White Heat. The man had screen presence like few others in his time, and this film is worth watching if only to see him shine.
Cagney plays Rocky Sullivan, a career criminal who's been in and out of prison his whole life. His childhood friend, Jerry Connolly (O'Brien), is now a priest and is spending his time trying to stop this local gang of kids from going down the wrong path. Rocky takes a shine to these kids and starts grooming them to be criminals like him, pushing them further into the dark side. Along the way, Rocky nearly starts a gang war when he tries to get the hundred thou owed him by his lawyer James Frazier (Bogart). For such a short film, there's a lot happening that doesn't flow all that well. The ending is a bit melodramatic, but again, Cagney sells it effortlessly.
I didn't enjoy Angels with Dirty Faces as much as I thought I would, but that doesn't change its impact on film noir and the gangster subgenre that evolved from it. There are some great moments in this film, and some killer performances. But I think it has some focus issues and isn't really sure what story it wants to tell.