While Cagney and O’Brien share billing in this, the sixth of their nine pictures together, Angels really is Cagney’s film. His anti-hero is a richer role, and with that trademark kinetic energy, Cagney practically jumps off the screen.
Director Michael Curtiz a Master Filmmaker
Angels traces the lifelong bromance of Cagney, as hood Rocky Sullivan, and his chum Jerry Connolly (O’Brien), who becomes a streetwise yet idealistic priest.
The first shot instantly reveals why director Michael Curtiz was such a master filmmaker. His fluid camera begins on a medium-close shot of a pair of hands clutching a newspaper headlined, “Harding Nominated for President.” This is followed by a nearly 180-degree pan across a busy New York tenement street scene. This purely visual exposition effortlessly establishes the film’s era and milieu.
(The elaborate street set was built for the film, showing Warners was more than willing to spend extravagantly on this prestige picture.)
Cagney Impersonator Cast as Young Rocky
We quickly meet teenagers Rocky and Jerry as they flirt with a trio of girls; Rocky teases the prettiest one, Laury. As Rocky, actor Frankie Burke not only closely resembles Cagney, but nails the voice. (He had been a Cagney impersonator when a talent scout signed him for the film.) It’s perfect casting, unlike in other films such as director Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America — coincidentally also a gangster picture — where the teen actors look nothing like the adults they’re supposed to grow up to become.
Soon, in a brilliant, incredibly economical 66-second montage, we see Rocky climbing the ladder to kingpin status during Prohibition — reform school to prison to bootlegging to murder to more prison and eventual freedom. At 10 minutes into the film, a pan of the tenement scene identical to the one at the film’s opening caps Rocky’s criminal backstory and sets up the heart of the film.
Humphrey Bogart as Cowardly Mob Lawyer
As Rocky’s mob lawyer, Humphrey Bogart talks tough — but we quickly see he’s actually petrified of the ruthless Rocky. It’s intriguing to see him this way; Bogart was still three years away from leading man status as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon — the role that virtually defined his most enduring screen image as the noble loner-hero living by his own code.
The Dead End Kids are terrific in this film, a year after they burst on the movie scene as proteges of mobster Bogart in Dead End. It’s refreshing to see screen teenagers played by the real thing — and they’re excellent here, striking all the right notes as street toughs who can’t mask their real fears and adolescent insecurities.
Ann Sheridan as Wholesome Sex Symbol
The key supporting role of the adult Laury (you knew she’d be back) is played by fresh-faced Ann Sheridan. Hard to believe just four years later, she’d be considered for the role of Ilsa Lund in Curtiz’s Casablanca. Here, she acquits herself respectably in the role of the Good Girl who sort of goes bad (but not really) when hooking up with Rocky. The film needed some sex, and while Sheridan’s is mostly vanilla, at least that serves as a nice counterpoint to Cagney’s bad boy allure.
Curtiz’ fluid camera is evident in a shootout between Rocky and another mobster, Keefer, played unmemorably by George Bancroft. Instead of a simple two-shot, Curtiz pans from the armed Cagney to a mirror where we see the vicious Cagney firing away. Only then does he cut to Keefer, who goes down in a heap. Curtiz adds spice to what would otherwise have been a routine shot.
Original Dead Man Walking Sequence
This is the kind of movie where it becomes sport to spot uncredited, yet familiar character actors in tiny parts. Like the stentorian John Hamilton as a cop. (Hamilton probably is best remembered today as Perry White in the classic Superman TV series of the 1950s.)
Ultimately, Angels With Dirty Faces is a story of redemption — which arrives during the famous long-walk-to-the-electric-chair sequence. Thanks to this movie, the Dead Man Walking routine is now a movie cliche. But hokey as it is by today’s standards, the scene still packs a punch, thanks to the electric Cagney and a nice, shaded performance by his lifelong friend, O’Brien.