Angels with Dirty Faces runs less than ninety minutes, but doesn’t really fill them. The first fifteen minutes of the film are flashbacks, tracking James Cagney’s character from troubled boyhood to juvenile detention to prison. Once the present action starts, Cagney immediately reunites with Pat O’Brien’s now priest, former similarly troubled youth. But Angels doesn’t have a story for O’Brien separate from Cagney and it doesn’t have much of a story for Cagney separate from the Dead End Kids.
For much of the film, Angels uses the Dead End Kids in a reduced capacity, or at least it immediately qualifies the scenes they get to themselves, tying it into Cagney’s recently released gangster storyline. The film’s last act, however, almost entirely removes Cagney and O’Brien. It does remove them separate from the Dead End Kids’s storyline; poor Ann Sheridan, as Cagney’s unlikely love interest, does entirely disappear for the third act.
So while they never have quite enough story to make a full film, even a ninety minute one, screenwriters John Wexley and Warren Duff certainly seem like they should have enough material for one. But since the Dead End Kids are all caricatures, maybe it’s just not possible. Cagney, O’Brien and Sheridan only get slightly better scenes–they’re just better actors. Director Curtiz expects more from them and gets it.
Curtiz directs some great sequences, like the lengthy, thrilling final shootout sequence or anything with Sheridan and Cagney.
Cagney’s fantastic performance almost carries Angels; the structure’s just too wobbly.
Directed by Michael Curtiz; screenplay by John Wexley and Warren Duff, based on a story by Rowland Brown; director of photography, Sol Polito; edited by Owen Marks; music by Max Steiner; released by Warner Bros.
Starring James Cagney (Rocky Sullivan), Pat O’Brien (Jerry Connolly), Humphrey Bogart (James Frazier), Ann Sheridan (Laury Ferguson), George Bancroft (Mac Keefer), Billy Halop (Soapy), Bobby Jordan (Swing), Leo Gorcey (Bim), Gabriel Dell (Pasty), Huntz Hall (Crab) and Bernard Punsly (Hunky).