Monday, October 18, 2010

"Angels With Dirty Faces" with James Cagney, Pat O'Brien and Humphrey Bogart

This is one of the all time great gangster films. The incredible screen chemistry of James Cagney and Pat O'Brien (two very close friends in real life) along with the rough edged performance of Humphrey Bogart, make this film worth watching time and again. And there is always something new to be noticed with each viewing.

Briefly, the story concerns 2 young boys in the slums of New York during the 1920's. They go to church together, even sing in the choir. But outside of church they are caught up in the petty thefts that are necessary to survive. When Rocky Sullivan (played by Cagney) and the future Father Connolly (played by O'Brien) are caught breaking into a freight car to steal a load of fountain pens, Rocky goes to Juvenile Hall, while the future priest manages to escape. This single event sets the stage for both of their futures.

Rocky goes to reform school, where he gets a real "education" in the ways of crime. His pal goes on to become a Priest, serving in the parish where they both grew up. Rocky, has, by this time, embarked upon a life of crime that has him in and out of prison. He becomes a "name" in the daily papers. The neighborhood kids, where Rocky and Father Connolly grew up, see him as the guy who "made it big." This makes Father Connolly's job, trying to teach the kids moral values, that much harder to accomplish.

When Rocky returns to the neighborhood to live, he repeatedly offers the greeting "Whaddaya hear, whaddaya say?" to Father Connolly. In real life Cagney picked this phrase up from a bookie who hung around 1st Avenue when he was growing up.

The kids, Leo Gorcey and the rest of the "Bowery Boys", aka "The Dead End Kids", now give up on the church, turning instead to the pool room for their education. Their new found freind, Rocky, has stolen Father Connolly's "flock." Father Connolly asks Rocky to stop inspiring the boys, and finally lets him know that freindship is no longer a barrier in his quest to clean up the crime and corruption that plagues the city. Rocky agrees, thinking that "nothing will ever come of it."

Knowing that Father Connolly has been trying to build a gym for the boys, Rocky donates $10,000 anonymously to the fund, only to have Father Connolly return it as being unworthy. Interestingly, this $10,000 represents one tenth of the $100,000 which Rocky has extorted from Bogart. In other words, he was tithing 10% of his take to the church.

When the crime commission, at the direction of his pal Father Connolly, indicts Rocky, a contract is issued on the life of Father Connolly. But loyalty between friends runs deep, and Cagney cancels the contract in a very permanent way. Wanted now for murder, he is a fugitive caught in a web of his own design.

The warehouse scene, where Rocky is finally apprehended, is a movie legend of sorts. When the police are firing those Thompson machine guns at the window where "Rocky" is standing, the bullets are real. You can actually see the shattered glass shards on Cagney's hat and shoulders. According to Cagney, the shots were so close that this was the last time he would consent to live fire sequences in any of his films.

Rocky is captured, tried and sentenced to death in the electric chair. This leads to one of the all time greatest of movie endings. Father Connolly comes to see Rocky just before the execution, asking him to fake cowardice on the way to the chair. Only in this way can he make the boys understand the false bravado of criminals and that crime never really pays. Cagney is incredulous at this request and refuses his old friend, stating, "You're asking me to give up the last thing I got left!"

When the Warden comes with the guards to escort Rocky to the death chamber, Father Connolly walks alongside of him and pleads one last time for Rocky to "turn yellow." Rocky still refuses and stoically enters the last room he will ever see in this world. This is the payoff scene. Silhouetted against the wall, the viewer sees Rocky grasping at the radiator, the legs of the guards, in short, at anything that he can, while screaming "Please, I don't want to die!" Sobbing and struggling he is strapped into the electric chair. The switch is closed and the lights dim. Rocky is dead.

Father Connolly returns to the neighborhood, where he finds the boys in the cellar which they use as a clubhouse. They are reading the newspaper account of Rocky's death and refuse to believe that he died "yellow." Father Connolly, although doubting that Rocky had really turned "yellow" at the last minute, tells the boys it's true. He then asks them to come with him to the church and "say a prayer for a boy that couldn't run as fast as I could." The movie closes leaving the viewer to decide whether Rocky was faking his cowardice as a favor for Father Connolly, or if he really did turn "yellow."

This film was nominated for 3 Oscars and garnered Cagney the New York Film Critics Award as Best Actor for 1938. Seventy two years after the fact, this film remains relevant and inspiring. The clothes are different, and the cars are old, but the social problems outlined in the film are still with us. And that's what makes this film so worth watching.

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