Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) ****
Here we have the Warner Brothers crime movie formula in perfect working order.
It’s the one with Pat O’Brien and Cagney as former boyhood friends and small-time partners-in-crime Jerry Connolly and Rocky Sullivan, whose lives take very different paths when Rocky is sent to reform school. Rocky learns the tricks of the criminal trade while Jerry goes straight and becomes a priest.
Aware that their films were frequently condemned for glamorising criminality in the eyes of youthful audiences, Warners here make this problem the central component of the narrative itself, as the friendship still retained by the two former pals is tested when Rocky’s celebrity gangster becomes a hero to the gang of boys Jerry is trying to keep on the right side of the law. (Cast as the latter contingent are the Dead End Kids in perhaps their most famous appearance outside of the original Dead End, noticeably less reprehensible after their debut appearance was itself widely criticised for providing bad role models.)
Much of the fun of these films was always to be found in their attempts to provide authentic gangster thrills (provided in part here by Bogart in one of his best pre-Casablanca sneering hood roles) while at the same time maintaining an explicitly condemnatory attitude towards them to appease the censors, often taking the form of introductory scrolling captions claiming public service status.
But the trick was rarely mastered as brilliantly as in this film, not least in its still almost unbearably powerful and moving final scenes where, sentenced to death, Rocky aggressively refuses Jerry’s pleas that he should pretend to be cowardly at the point of death so the boys do not idolise and imitate him.
With commendable ambiguity, we never discover for sure if Rocky really does turn yellow at the last minute or if his attitude of cocky bravado beforehand is all part of a performance to lend verisimilitude to his subsequent collapse. Most viewers, I suspect, lean towards the latter, more heroic option, but either way it is a shattering, audience-silencing climax to a film that never puts a foot wrong.