One of the most stirring, colorful and thoroughly memorable gangster films ever made, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES serves to illustrate how the Church once exerted its influence in movie making.

James Cagney and Pat O’Brien play boyish youths Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connelly, growing up on New York’s lower East Side, a melting pot for the unschooled immigrant class who struggle to survive in poverty and crime. One day, as railroad yard police chase them, Rocky is caught because he cannot run as fast as Jerry, who clambers over a fence to make good his escape.

Rocky goes to reform school and graduates to prison after committing one crime after another. Jerry takes the road less traveled, reforming after seeing Rocky’s fate and going into the ministry.

After fifteen years, Rocky is released from prison. Renting a room in his old neighborhood, he looks up his old friend, who is now Father Jerry and the shepherd of a rough bunch of boys, the Dead End Kids. Then, he pays a call on his lawyer Frazier, who has been keeping $100,000 for him, and meets racket boss Keefer. Both promise to cut Rocky in on their lucrative operations, but secretly plot afterwards to have him murdered.

In the meanwhile, Rocky visits his old hide-out, now inhabited by a new generation of hoodlums, the Dead End Kids, who take an instant liking to their new hero. Rocky, who has a sentimental weakness for women and children, but most of all an undying friendship with the priest, agrees at Father Jerry’s urging to involve the youths in his recreation program and later supports him in trying to make them play a civilized game of basketball (which he does by giving the rough necks a taste of their own medicine).

Having foiled a rub-out attempt on his life, Rocky later turns the tables on Frazier and Keefer, cutting himself in for a one-third ownership of their swanky El Toro Club. When news of racketeering and corrupt police proceedings reaches Father Jerry, the priest launches a radio and newspaper campaign, with Rocky’s tolerant blessing. Overhearing a conversation between Frazier and Keefer to kill his priest friend, Rocky shoots them down.

The shootings bring the police who surround the building and capture Rocky. Rocky is quickly tried and sentenced to the electric chair. Jerry visits him in the death house, asking him to go to the chair as a coward so that the Dead End Kids will no longer admire him, nor see him as a glorified hero.

“You’re asking me for the only thing I got,” he snarls. “I won’t do it.” However, Father Jerry implores Rocky to straighten himself out with God and have the kind of courage that’s born in heaven. So Rocky goes to the chair begging for life until the current cuts him off in mid-scream, one of the most chilling moments in film history.

In a poignant final scene, Father Jerry goes to the Dead End Kids who ask him if the newspapers are correct, that their hero Rocky died like “a yellow rat.” “It’s true,” he tells them. “Now let’s go say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”

Unlike the overt and pervasive hostility to religion and religious values that has taken root in Hollywood in recent times, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES is indicative of those days when Hollywood turned out popular and sympathetic portrayals of contemporary clergymen. As a man of the cloth who is kindly and concerned, if not downright heroic, Father Jerry is a compassionate priest who gives hope to underprivileged children.

Even if it means relinquishing his friend Rocky, Father Jerry wants to save these young impressionable youths, or “angels with dirty faces” as it were, from the effects of negative role modeling. The acting and drama with which the story accomplishes this stands out as truly distinctive when compared to the profanity and obscenity which so often passes for drama in today’s films.

Quality: - Content: +4
Quality: - Content: +1