Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

dir. Michael Curtiz. Two street kids are busted stealing fountain pens, Jerry escapes, but Rocky is caught by the coppers. This defining moment leads Jerry to reform himself and become a priest, while Rocky is sentenced to reform school and a life of crime. Grown up Rocky is played by James Cagney, as the classic fast talking gangster, with his signature greeting, “What do you hear? What do you say?”. This line was so catchy that it followed Cagney for the rest of his life, and was quoted in many media, including The Sopranos when Paulie gets released from prison. When Rocky finally gets released from jail, he must out outwit a former underworld pal played by Humphrey Bogart. The core of the story is the battle over the souls of a group of neighbourhood children – The Dead End Kids are back! Father Jerry wants to use basketball to put them on the pious path, and Rocky wants to teach them the street cunning they need to survive. The scenes with James Cagney palling around with the kids are brilliant, and apparently the youngsters were so out of control that Cagney physically hit them to keep them in line. There is a basketball scene where some of Rocky’s playful slaps look like they really connect. The famous ambiguous ending is still very effective. Pat O’Brien as the priest is unfortunately flat, his listless and dull performance prevents the conflict between him and his old friend from having any emotional resonance. This film belongs more in the Faith & Spirituality section, rather than the Thriller or Drama – the ending really lays it on thick.

By Nicholas Hudson-Ellis

Co-Founder & Film Programs Manager of Bangkok Screening Room.