Watched: September 20 2016

Director: Michael Curtiz

Starring: James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart

Year: 1938

Runtime: 1h 37min

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It is laundry day in downtown New York (we think?), and friends Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly are up to no good. After bullying some passing girls, they decide to steal some fountain pens (cause that’s what bad boys did in the ’20s) and Rocky is caught. He goes to juvenile detention where he learns to be an even better criminal and spends the next 13 years in and out of prison.

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In between stints in prison, he stays busy coaching basketball, as one does

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After being released a final time, Rocky (Cagney) goes back to his old neighbourhood and meets up again with childhood cohort Jerry (O’Brien) who is now a priest. Despite their different lifestyles, their old friendship stays strong and the gangster even helps the priest with some of the “dead end kids” who Jerry is trying to save from a life of crime.

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He also corrupts them of course, but only out of necessity

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While Rocky might initially have tried to get back on the right track, it doesn’t take him long to return to a life of crime, partly due to local crime kingpin Frazier (Bogart) who tries to have him killed. He does not take kindly to this and exacts his revenge by kidnapping Frazier and forcing him into a partnership.

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“Whadda ya mean taking the money and leaving would be smarter than getting into business with the man who tried to have me killed?”

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Eventually, Rocky’s escapades threaten not only his relationship with his girl Laury (Sheridan) but also the one with Jerry, who launches his own campaign to overthrow the corrupt officials and the gangsters who secretly run the town. After a shootout with the police, Rocky is arrested again and sentenced to death. Jerry comes to see him before the execution and begs him to sacrifice his ego and pride to save the dead end boys, which leads to one of the most emotionally devastating scenes we’ve ever seen (possibly worse than the Tramp’s New Year’s dinner in The Gold Rush).

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Will he or won’t he do his old friend one last favour? The results might shock you!

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Angels With Dirty Faces is in a way an early condamnation of the American justice system, and the arguments (nor the realities of the system) haven’t changed much over the years. It’s a beautiful, gripping gangster film with excellent performances and a truly heartbreaking ending. Even though we were both in tears in the end, we loved it.

What we learned: Whadda ya hear, whadda ya say?

Next time: Bringing Up Baby (1938)

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2 thoughts on “#43 Angels with Dirty Faces

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