Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

“Whadda ya hear, whadda ya say?”

After rescuing his friend Jerry (William Tracy) from being run over by a train they’ve just tried to rob, young Rocky (Frankie Burke) is sent to reform school and embarks on a life of crime. When Rocky (James Cagney) emerges from prison years later, Jerry (Pat O’Brien) has become a priest caring for a group of juvenile delinquents (The Dead End Kids) who idolize Rocky as a notorious gangster. After demanding and being denied money from his former partner-in-crime (Humphrey Bogart) and Bogart’s business partner (George Bancroft), Cagney vows revenge, and soon becomes caught up in an elaborate new criminal scheme. Can Cagney’s loyal friend (O’Brien) and sweetheart (Ann Sheridan) convince him to change his ways before it’s too late?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ann Sheridan Films
  • Ex-Cons
  • Friendship
  • Gangsters
  • George Bancroft Films
  • Humphrey Bogart Films
  • James Cagney Films
  • Juvenile Delinquents
  • Michael Curtiz Films
  • New York City
  • Pat O’Brien Films
  • Priests and Ministers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is a big fan of this “standout gangster film that has often been copied but never equaled.” He argues it remains “exciting” and “funny, too; with surefire direction by Michael Curtiz and a terrific performance by James Cagney in one of his best roles.” Unfortunately, Peary gives away a major spoiler early in his review and stays focused on the ramifications of the film’s ending in his analysis, so I won’t say more except to note that “the script was written by the notorious Rowland Brown (Blood Money), who, it was rumored, had underworld connections.” Peary discusses the film a bit more in Alternate Oscars, where he nominates it as one of the best Movies of the Year and names Cagney Best Actor of the Year. He writes that in this film, Cagney’s “mouth works nonstop, grinning, laughing, shooting tough talk… and street slang as fast as machine gun bullets” while he “races back and forth across the screen, lifting his shoulders and bringing his arms to his sides before doing any rough stuff.” He adds that while “gangster movies were often criticized for glorifying their crime-breaking protagonists”, “in this case the criticism may have had validity” given that Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan “is truly appealing”: “He’s a tough guy but we are taken by his infectious grin, even in the face of danger, his sense of humor, his touch of conceit…, and his humility.”

DVD Savant is less enamored by the film, referring to it as “a sanitized rehash of gangster themes tailored to appeal to all audiences”, coming “complete with sermons and a foundation of strict moral values [to] underpin every plot point”. My own sentiment lies somewhere in between Peary and Savant’s. Angels With Dirty Faces remains a powerfully made film, masterfully directed and shot by Curtiz and DP Sol Polito, and featuring a truly stand-out performance by Cagney — but the antics of the “Dead End Kids” quickly wear thin:

… and O’Brien’s sanctimonious priest is terribly one-note.

With that said, Sheridan is fine in an underutilized role, Bogart is notably smarmy as Cagney’s duplicitous counterpart:

and Cagney’s energized performance continuously holds the film afloat. The final scenes are indeed memorable, and viewers unfamiliar with the story should stay away from any reviews before watching it; the last close-up of Cagney says more in one shot than can quite be described.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Cagney as Rocky
  • Ann Sheridan as Laury
  • Fine direction by Curtiz
  • Sol Polito’s atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Cagney’s performance and as a mostly-effective classic.


  • Genuine Classic

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

  1. A swift-moving, snappy must-see.

    Brown’s largely staccato script is certainly a plus. I’m rather in agreement with the well-observed remarks made in the second paragraph above, beginning with “‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ remains a powerfully made film…” through to the end of the paragraph. I would only add that, though O’Brien’s role does lean toward being “terribly one-note”, that’s of necessity, given the overall purpose of the story.

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