James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

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*Didn’t title this post Performance Of The Week namely because of my lack in blogging frequency.*

I had the great pleasure in watching Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) during my recess week. The story follows a priest who wants to stop a gangster, who used to be an old buddy of his, from corrupting a group of street kids. The film, while not perfect, is one of my favourites from that decade now and would have richly deserved a best picture nomination (liked it more than Jezebel). I tend to be a sucker for gangster films with complex leads, and this one is no exception. It is especially well-directed for its time, and some sequences are pretty thrilling, like when the main character nearly almost got cornered and killed in a phone booth.  I had some issues with some of the other actors, such as Pat O’Brien in a not too interesting role as the one-dimensional, can-do-no-wrong priest (considering he was once a street kid himself, I would have expected something a bit more complex). Ann Sheridan, started out promising and charming but soon got overwhelmed by the strength of the story as well. Still, it’s a solid picture that I recommend.

James Cagney plays the lead role of Rocky Sullivan, the gangster. Physically, it’s easy to see how well he actually fits the role. He wasn’t the most traditionally handsome actor, and his face does fit that of a guy who grew up in the streets and has his fair share of experiences in crime and violence. Still, he has this charisma that flows naturally with his fast-speech that is surprisingly not annoying. There’s just something about his physical presence that draws the viewer’s attention to him; the confidence, the smooth talking, the quick thinking are all well-portrayed and I found myself actually rooting for this guy despite how slimy he is (and how annoyingly preachy his old priest buddy was). Cagney shows how Sullivan can easily maneuver and manipulate his way out of situations because of his experiences in handling the “big guys” and “cops”. In one particular sequence, he orders one of the kids to hide his money from the cops, and we can see the great amount of influence he has over the young boys.  It’s easy to follow from there why they revered him and wanted to follow in his footsteps.

That being said, Cagney’s characterization of Sullivan is more complex than it seems. Other than the mere gangster that he is, we can see that he is someone who values loyalty and his friendship with Jerry (the priest). He also has a slightly softer side to him as seen in his interactions with Laury (Ann Sheridan), although it is a bit of a pity that this relationship wasn’t fully explored in the film. Still, Sullivan’s eventual execution at the end of the film is one of the highlights of Cagney’s performance, as it really brought out the question of whether he was as “evil” as perceived. *spoilers* Was Sullivan really pretending to be afraid of the electric chair at Jerry’s request? Did he really had the interest of the young boys in mind, and wanted them to stop worshiping him as a hero? Cagney himself said that he wanted to play it in such a way that it was up to the audiences’ interpretation to decide whether Sullivan was really a “yellow rat” at the end of the day.

James Cagney’s performance in Angels With Dirty Faces isn’t discussed very often (he won the Oscar instead for Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942), but I think the performance is a pretty fantastic one that should be reviewed more often.

p.s. Yes, I rushed this post but I had to write it with the memory of the film still fresh in my mind. See you when this semester is over.

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