There’s a reason some actors stay famous long after they’re dead. Sometimes you might not know them by name or even when you see them, but you’ve subconsciously been taught their mannerisms, catch phrases, quirks and ticks trough constant pop culture references, bad impressions and parodies. Jimmy Cagney is one of those dudes. His signature performances all happened around four decades before I was born, bit his name, and more prominently, his schtick, are very familiar. Through Bugs Bunny cartoons and even the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live action movie (‘coz you know what kids of the 80s loved? References to movie gangsters of the 30s) I knew who the “you dirty rat” guy was. What I didn’t know why was why I knew who he was all these years later. Watching Angles With Dirty Faces showed me why.
Like Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart and Kathryn Hepburn, Cagney just has a persona and charisma that are too big and entertaining to be forgotten. And in the case of Angles With Dirty Faces, he thankfully has a persona and charisma big enough and entertaining enough to make up for a pretty half assed, predictable movie.
James Cagney is Rocky Sullivan, as a street hood kid, he robs a train with his best mate Jerry Connolly, played by Pat O’Brien. Rocky gets caught, goes to reform school and grows up to be a noted gangster, constantly in and out of prison. Jerry grows up to be the neighbourhood priest. After his most recent stint in the can, Rocky gets out expecting $100,000 and a full partnership in the rackets with his lawyer, Humphrey Bogart’s Jim Frazier. Bogie’s got new business partners and an aversion to giving Cagney the 100k, so shit has to go down. But before shit can reach critical go downery, Cagney’s Rocky befriends the new generation of street hood kids who spend the rest of the movie torn between mentors, the gangster Rocky, or the priest Jerry.
Angles With Dirty Faces is a little ham fisted and predictable, but most of that is easy to look past. It only really hits a wall in the last scene or two when the notorious Production Code kicks in. You see, back in the day, the Production Code made it basically illegal for a movie to show bad guys getting away with anything. Angels With Dirty Faces tries to have it both ways. Rocky is clearly the hero and we’re on his side the whole way has he shoots and kidnaps his way to victory. Then, with maybe ten minutes left to go, the film makers remember they’d better stick to the code if they want move released, so they jarringly cut to a more morally acceptable conclusion for Rocky Sullivan.
Tacked on ending aside, it’s a more than entertaining movie with Cagney and Bogart adding plenty of awesome anytime they’re on screen. But the best thing about Angles With Dirty Faces came a year later. It’s like someone decided to keep the good bits (Cagney, Bogart, gangsters and guns), leave out the bad bits (the kids, the shoehorned in morals, the love story that goes nowhere) and remake it as 1939’s The Roaring Twenties. Now that’s a Cagney / Bogart gangster picture really worth seeing.