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Film / Angels with Dirty Faces

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"All right, fellas... let's go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn't run as fast as I could."

Angels with Dirty Faces is a 1938 Warner Bros. gangster film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, the Dead End Kids and Humphrey Bogart, along with Ann Sheridan and George Bancroft. The film was written by Rowland Brown, John Wexley and Warren Duff with uncredited assistance from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

The story starts out with two inner-city kids who were caught stealing fountain pens, Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly. Rocky was captured by the police and sent into reform school while Jerry escaped, due to being able to run faster. Rocky grew up to become a notorious gangster, while Jerry grew up to be a priest. When Rocky (Cagney) returns to live in his old neighborhood after being released from prison, Jerry (O'Brien) tries to prevent the local kids from idolizing Rocky, who befriends them whilst continuing his criminal ways.

Not to be confused with Angels with Filthy Souls (though it was inspired by the film) or the dragon-dating Visual Novel Angels with Scaly Wings. And besides also starring The Dead End Kids, is unrelated to the later film The Angels Wash Their Faces.

Contains examples of:

  • The Alleged House: Rocky's apartment in the "old parish" is an old, rotten room. He puts on a brave face when he sees it, but the bed breaks when he tries to sit down on it.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Did Rocky really turn yellow, or was it just an act? Note that mere seconds before his freak-out, Rocky was completely stoic and showed no fear whatsoever. Also, the reverend had a knowing look on his face as he witnessed.
  • Amoral Attorney: The most despicable character in the picture is the lawyer Jim Frazier, who willingly hides 100 grand stolen from a bank by a client of his and then backstabs that client at every opportunity to keep the money for himself. He uses it to buy off cops, politicians, and journalists. Whenever he's confronted on his crooked ways, he lies and lies and makes empty promises before thinking of how to backstab them the first chance he gets.
  • Anonymous Public Phone Call: Frazier's men decide the best way to kill Rocky is to get him into a phone booth, so they call the restaurant phone booth he's in and ask for him, knowing there's no way the owner or Rocky will be able to track the phone call to them if they themselves use a public phone. The plan nearly works.
  • Anti-Hero: Rocky is the one standing up to the corrupt and cowardly Frazier, keeping him from holding onto 100 grand he doesn't deserved. However, Rocky is a criminal himself and he only wants the money for himself, not out of any sense of justice.
  • Backup Bluff: Rocky tricks Mac Keefer into thinking he has another gunmen holding Frazier hostage by calling a random restaurant up on the phone and talking as if he's giving a guy instructions to kill Frazier if he doesn't give some coded message to him within a certain timeframe. The restaurant's owner even hangs up on Rocky halfway through the call, but that doesn't stop him from talking on and on to sell the bluff.
  • Badass Preacher: Connolly can be one. It's especially shown at the end of the scene in which Connolly fails to convince the Dead End Kids to stop gambling at a pool hall and come play basketball. As he leaves a man snidely remarks "What's the matter, Father? Can't get them to come to heaven with ya?" Connolly turns around and socks him square in the jaw.
  • Bad Guys Play Pool: The big sign that Soapy and his friends are being corrupted by Rocky is that they use his money to bet on pool games.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Rocky and Laury Martin have hated each other since they were kids, but their bickering turns largely playful in adulthood and the two genuinely grow to care for each other's safety as Rocky's life gets more dangerous and their romance blossoms.
  • Best Served Cold: Played for Laughs; Laury Martin waits for decades before paying back Rocky for pulling her hat over her face when they were teenagers. Her elaborate revenge is no more than doing the same thing back to him and running away, and he seems more amused by it than anything.
  • Binge Montage: The last bit of Rocky's adult life montage shows his decadence past-times like drinking champagne with beautiful women and attending fabulous casinos. We also see him blowing up storefronts with Molotov cocktails, just so you know how he affords such luxuries.
  • Blatant Lies: Mac Keefer calls the cops with a dire warning about a kidnapping and ransom demand committed by a famous gangster he's publicly associated with. Two days later, he calls them to call the whole thing off with no better explanation than that he had a misunderstanding. Everyone in the movie knows that's nonsense and acts accordingly.
  • Broken Pedestal: Invoked by Jerry. He wants Rocky to die being seen as a coward so the boys will no longer idolize and wish to be like him. It seems to work.
  • Catchphrase: "What do ya hear? What do ya say?"
  • Central Theme: Suffering for the good of others.
  • Cherubic Choir: Father Connolly is introduced as an adult leading a choir of boys the same age he was when he was a delinquent. It shows he's changed a lot and is doing his best to make sure these kids don't make the mistakes that nearly ruined his life.
  • Crime Spree Montage: After our young protagonist getting arrested, we see him age into James Cagney as he becomes involved in gambling, racketeering, bootlegging, and gang violence.
  • Cynic–Idealist Duo: Rocky and Jerry were thick as thieves and even in the present are close, but while Jerry sees the best in people and believes the high road is the way to go, Rocky expects the worst and sees no problem using crime and violence to make ends meet.
    Jerry: Supposing I was the one that got caught, I'd bet you wouldn't keep quiet. They'd make you send them up to.
    Rocky: Go on, what do you think I am? I'd lay dead like you're going to.
    Jerry: You would?
    Rocky: Sure. Always remember: don't be a sucker.
  • Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!: Rocky is a charismatic and successful man who seems to be liked by everyone around, him despite or even because of his life of crime. This is actually something Father Connolly is trying to address in-universe, since he doesn't want the kids in his parish to be inspired to follow in Rocky's footsteps.
  • Death Equals Redemption: As he's being sent to the electric chair, Rocky has a fit of conscience and decides to fake going yellow, in order to dissuade the neighbourhood kids from idolizing him and hopefully scare them straight. Maybe.
  • Dirty Coward:
    • Humphrey Bogart as the crooked lawyer, Frazier, is a more straight example. He breaks his promise to give Rocky his own money back, sends goons to kill him without dirtying his own hands, and immediately jumps right back into Rocky's pocket when he finds out about it out of fear of him.
    • What Father Jerry wants Rocky to appear as when he goes to the chair.
  • Do Wrong, Right: Some of the kids try to pickpocket Rocky. Being an expert pickpocket himself, he catches them - and then tells them how to do a better job getting away with the crime next time.
  • Dramatic Ammo Depletion: Our hero (of a sorts) of course runs out of bullets in the final shoot-out just when he's completely surrounded with no seeming way out.
  • Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: Rocky picks up a newspaper from a kid selling them this way.
  • Face Death with Dignity: How Rocky wants to go out. Father Jerry has other ideas...
  • Fatal Flaw: Rocky is loyal to a fault.
  • Former Teen Rebel: Father Jerry was a juvenile delinquent before he became a priest.
  • Free-Range Children: The Dead End Kids, who live in the streets and don't even appear to have parents. Granted, it's the same in basically every movie they appear in, including Dead End.
  • Gentle Touch vs. Firm Hand: Father Connolly tries to get the boys to listen to him by organizing choir practice and basketball games, while Rocky gets their attention by insulting, hitting them, and threatening them. Rocky gets them to listen to him much more easily.
  • Give Me Back My Wallet: Rocky gets introduced to the Dead Ends kids when he notices one of them pickpocketing him. A former child thief himself, he knows exactly the hiding spot they'd used and confronts them while giving them some tips on how to be bad better.
  • Good Shepherd: Connolly is a reasonable and incorruptible leader who does everything in his power to save Rocky and the kids who worship him from continuing down a life of crime and incarceration. He's even willing to risk his freedom and his safety for the sake of helping others.
  • Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook: Rocky Sullivan grows up into a notorious gangster after having been thrown into a reform school as a kid for stealing pens, and ends up going in and out of prison well into adulthood due to being corrupted. His friend, Jerry Connolly, escaped being thrown into the reform school by the police, and grew up to become a priest.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: The line "If anyone ever pulled a boner, you did!" Boner at one time meant 'mistake'.
  • Honesty Aesop: Father Connolly's strongest conviction is that honesty is the best policy, and that you can't properly teach other to live honestly while standing by fraud and corruption around you. Despite Rocky's warnings, the papers do end up interested in spreading the truth and they work together to root out the liars in town.
  • Horrible Housing: Rocky is so broke out of jail he can only afford an apartment in a condemned parish building where the rent is five bucks a month. This incentivizes him even more so to get his hundred grand from Frazier.
  • Human Shield: Rocky ends up using Jerry as one. We find out later that the gun Rocky used was empty.
  • Implausible Deniability: On the same day the newspapers report Rocky illegally came into possession of one hundred grand, his old friend Jerry suddenly finds a massive envelop of cash in the mail. When Jerry goes to give the money back to Rocky, he claims to have no idea where it came from. Jerry just compliments his friend's poker face and moves on.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Jerry adamantly refuses to support the corruption going on in his neighborhood, even if it means losings thousands of dollars, turning his back on his oldest friend, and abandoning his dearest plans for the future.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Rocky Sullivan might be a criminal, but he sincerely cares for his friends and does what he can to help the poor kids at his parish.
  • Juvenile Hell: Heading to juvy is treated as the end of an honest life and a sentence to a life of crime and villainy.
  • Literal Ass-Kicking: Sullivan gives the Dead End Kids a beating reminiscent of Moe Howard during their basketball game.
  • Little Brother Is Watching: Ending spoiler! Jerry tells Rocky that the boys in Jerry's care look up to Rocky and stand a chance of becoming criminals themselves because they idolize Rocky so. When Rocky is finally taken to the electric chair, instead of acting tough like he bragged about, he screamed, cried, begged for his life and "died yellow". It's ambiguous whether he truly panicked or just acted that way to discourage the kids from thinking he was cool. (Perhaps a bit of column A, a bit of column B?)
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Some hitmen who are after Rocky also want Jerry dead, but they want that death to look like an accident.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The movie starts with a flashback of Father Jerry and Rocky as teens. Rocky pulls a prank on his future love interest, the two steal from a trainyard, and Rocky gets sent to juvy, starting him down a life of crime.
  • "Mister Sandman" Sequence: The beginning of the film features the camera lingering on a newspaper with a period-distinguishing headline, before panning out at the beginning of a scene. They do this not once but twice, although it's probably less to establish the period itself and more to show how much time Rocky spends in prison. The first time they do it we see the city streets filled with horses pulling carriages, the second time we see the same street crammed with 30's-era automobiles.
  • More Dakka: Frazier's men decide that even though Rocky is stuck in a phone both with no way out, they might as well unload as many bullets as they can into him to make sure he's dead. The whole thing is brutal, especially since Rocky tricked one of their own men into entering the phone box and getting riddled in his place.
  • Only Known By His Nickname: The protagonist's real name is William Sullivan, but pretty much everyone just calls him "Rocky," even the newspapers.
  • Rags to Riches: William Sullivan starts out life as dirty delinquent, but after he becomes a ganster, he's wealthy enough to spend weekends drinking with glamorous women in fabulous casinos and eventually steals one hundred grand.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: Jerry and Rocky try to steal from a railroad park, so of course they end up nearly getting hit by a moving train.
  • The Redeemer: Father Connolly spends a good chunk of the movie working ever so subtly to try and get Rocky on the straight and narrow. In fact, the reason he's okay with Rocky helping out with basketball is in hopes working with the kids will motivate him to be a good influence.
  • She's All Grown Up: Rocky doesn't recognize Ann Sheridan's character when he first sees her and is shocked to learn she hasn't been hitched yet.
  • Shoot Out the Lock: A bunch of gangsters trying to get into a locked room get through by firing on the lock en masse.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Rocky dismisses Father Connolly's high-minded ideals as silly and asserts that the easiest way to get through life is to have a racket or a gun. Because of his cynicism, he doesn't take Connolly's threats to go to the press about his crime seriously, which turns out to be his undoing.
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: The Dead End Kids, in this film and just about every other film they appeared in. They're just homeless kids who live in the streets without any supervision, causing mischief. They were often used in gangster movies to symbolize the kinds of kids gangsters were before they grew up and became criminals.
  • Sound-Only Death: We don't see Rocky's execution except for his silhouette, his desperate begging, and the crowd's reactions.
  • Spinning Paper: A must for all classic gangster movies. The prologue ends with a montage of newspaper headlines detailings Rocky's various crimes and acquittals in the years between his childhood and the start of the movie proper.
  • Stock Footage: A montage features a shot of gangsters bombing a storefront. This shot is actually an alternate angle of the bombing of a store in The Public Enemy (1931).
  • Street Urchin: The dead end kids are a street-wise gaggle of kids with sticky fingers and no seeming parental supervision.
  • Threat Backfire: Mac Keefer calls the cops on Rocky after he admits to kidnapping Frazier, but it turns out Rocky also stole some highly illegal documents that could put Keefer and Frazier away for good. When he finds out, Keefer has to scramble to call the cops and mumble that it was all a misunderstanding.
  • Throw-Away Guns: Near the end, Rocky is out of bullets, so he throws his gun at his pursuers in desperation.
  • Tragic Hero: Rocky's a decent enough guy whose life changes when he takes the fall, first for his friend, then to the slimy lawyer Frazier.
  • Unnecessary Roughness: The parish basketball game descends into kids tackling and hitting each other, no matter how much Father Connolly tries to intervene. It is only when Rocky takes over as referee that they start to follow the rules of the game, and even then only because he hits them back just as hard whenever they start getting rough with each other.
  • Weapon for Intimidation: Rocky nearly gets his way out of a shoot-out by taking a hostage with an unloaded gun.
  • What You Are in the Dark: No one on Earth except Father Jerry will ever know that Rocky (probably) only pretended to be a coward in the death chair so that the Dead End Kids won't follow his example.