Crime movies of the early sound era were often forced by the puritan scolds behind The Hays Code to insert overt moral messaging to counteract the visceral “glamour” of onscreen criminal life. James Cagney’s earlier gangster hit, The Public Enemy (1931), was bookended by didactic anti-crime instructions, lest the impressionable audience become drunk on the glamour of wanton violence. A year later, Howard Hawks was forced by his studio, under pressure from censors, to not only insert a firm lecture decrying hoodlums but also add the descriptor “The Shame of the Nation” to the title of his influential gangster drama Scarface (1932). By the end of the decade, it seems that the Production Code was writing entire scripts, as Michael Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces (1982) plays from top to bottom like a moral busybody’s cri de coeur for the futures of at-risk youths. Thankfully, the pure craft of Curtiz and Cagney elevate this movie's simple-minded template beyond its provincial limits.
Cagney stars as Rocky Sullivan, an ambitious gangster who moves back into his old New York City neighborhood following release from prison. While Rocky negotiates his way toward the top of the gangland hierarchy — irking crooked attorney Humphrey Bogart and local boss George Bancroft — he competes with his boyhood partner-in-crime, now a priest (Pat O’Brien), for the devotion of an unruly pack of street urchins (played by The Dead End Kids).
Cagney is always dynamite, and is in perfect form here, which both feeds and confounds the moral point of Angels with Dirty Faces: in the battle of Good (O'Brien) vs. Evil (Cagney), it’s not even close, with O’Brien playing the part of a damp rag adjacent to a majestic forest fire. It’s only via the gutless execution of a narrative conceit that the priest — and screenwriters John Wexley and Warren Duff — ultimately fake their way to an unconvincing victory by disqualification. It’s interesting (and dramatically disappointing) that Rocky’s ultimate fall from grace, after an emotional buildup, happens almost entirely off-screen and never with a glimpse of Cagney himself. It’s as if the studio demanded weakness on the part of the villainous character but was afraid to show that same weakness on the part of their heroic star. Unfortunately, it’s a hedge that sucker punches itself just when the film was on the verge of paying off with something special.
Still, even with a cop-out ending and too much direct moralizing about the susceptibility of youths to bad influences, Angels with Dirty Faces is a pretty good time. I’m a sucker for overhead crane shots of early 20th century New York City blocks, and Curtiz squeezes out a couple of good ones, along with some nifty time-lapse montages of superimposed newspapers/showgirls/nightclubs, and his usual repertoire of inspired shadows and. Due to indifferent writing, neither Bogart nor Ann Sheridan (as Rocky’s love interest) get much to do, but Bogart is clearly on the edge of breaking out into his own. The Dead End Kids — a slapdash crew of juvenile miscreants who became Broadway and then Hollywood stars for a few short years — swallow most of the air left unconsumed by Cagney, and provide some chaotic energy, but a little of their disorganized 'Six Stooges' mayhem goes a long way. Cagney, however, sells them better than they sell themselves, as Rocky’s delight in their misbehavior is subversively contagious. The whole movie is really a tour-de-force of attitude by Cagney, and so much so that the persistent emanations of his presence overcome even that awful climactic shot of a single tear rolling down O’Brien’s cheek.