Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

[7.5]

James Cagney and Pat O’Brien star as a criminal and a priest who grew up on the streets of New York, rekindling their friendship and mentoring a new gang of street rats through O’Brien’s youth ministry. At first, the boys benefit from both men’s teachings, but when Cagney settles back into his old ways, O’Brien fears what the boys may learn from example.

O’Brien’s a stiff in this movie, but Cagney is full of life. There’s a twinkle in his eye that reminds us of his checkered past, all while he charms O’Brien, the boys, and co-star Ann Sheridan. The romantic subplot is woven into the story line very carefully — never weighing down or halting the storytelling, and providing a couple of fun, volatile exchanges between Cagney and Sheridan. But the meat of the story is between Cagney, O’Brien, and the boys, played by a stable of young actors who were credited as ‘the Dead End Kids’ in a handful of Warner Brothers movies. The best scenes in the movie are ones in which the boys try to dupe Cagney, who one-ups them in teachable (though shady) moments.

Angels with Dirty Faces is a gangster movie elevated by heart and style. The surrogate fathering O’Brien and Cagney offer the ‘Dead End Kids’ tugs the heartstrings without too much sentiment, while director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Captain Blood) keeps a great pace and injects increasingly more film-noir stylizing as the story approaches a grim finale. The final act is a little more didactic than I prefer, forcing a moral lesson upon the audience (not uncommon among films from the time). But up until that turning point, Angels with Dirty Faces is a compelling look at the palpable influence of father figures on impressionable lost boys.

With Humphrey Bogart and George Bancroft, and a great score by Max Steiner.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Cagney), Director, Original Screenplay

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