Angels With Dirty Faces

Angels With Dirty Faces
(1938)

Directed by Michael Curtiz
Starring James Cagney

Rating: ******
              6/6

Now here’s a movie that’s a lot of fun
And has something for everyone.
It has gangsters, and Cagney, and sassy teen boys,
Bogart, religion, prison and poise.
It has comedy, drama and real lead slugs,
Friendship and nightclubs and laughter and hugs.
About the only thing that it lacks is drugs.

James Cagney plays a gangster, fresh out of the slammer.
He meets his old friend, now a clergy commander.
His new priestly duties include helping kids
Stay out of trouble and away from the Feds.
The young teens are jerks called the East Side Kids.
They’re sassy and smart-mouthed and don’t do as they’re bid.
They idolize gangsters like the character played
By James Cagney, whom they meet that day.
Cagney enjoys the admiring stares,
But remembers his time in the Warden’s lairs,
And decides to try and help his friend help the tykes,
And try to steer them to the path of right,
So they play a game of basketball,
A non-touch sport, it’s known by all,
But the kids are violent little cheats,
And try to give their opponents the beats.

Cagney, however, wasn’t born yesterday,
And he elbows and trips them as they play,
Till the East Side Kids stop playing dirty,
And learn a lesson from the once-caged birdy.
Mr. Cagney now spends part of his days
Playing with the priest and his little jays,
But now he has to go to work, with his pluck,
And earn some rent money instead of just luck,
So he visits a night club he once used to frequent,
And meets the old gang serving booze that’s quite piquant.
Humphrey Bogart runs the place
And is surprised to suddenly see Cagney’s face.
It turns out that the reason that Cagney served time
Is because Bogart was his partner in crime,
A partner who helped him with armed robbery,
Walking away with a hundred grand spree.
When they got caught, Bogart asked him a favour:
That James would serve time for their shared endeavor.
In return, Cagney would receive the full hundred grand
That they stole all those years ago, according to plan.

So, Cagney shows up out of the blue,
And tries very quickly to collect his due.
His ex-partner is surprised, and asks him to wait,
And slides him five hundred for until he gets paid.
Naturally, this being a gangster picture,
His ex-partner tries to remove him from the picture.
To complicate matters, in the place that he’s staying,
One of his neighbours is a beautiful dame,
But there are no happy endings for violent men,
And they don’t get together at the end.
Instead, Cagney tries to juggle his new interesting life
With everything rotten with his past gangster life,
And this combination doesn’t work out well for him, mate.
He could have stayed out of trouble, but now it was too late.

He gets protective and vengeful and his enemies fall,
And then he gets cornered by coppers fierce and tall.
He resists, but they manage to capture him alive,
And they drag him away to the prisoner hive.
After his trial, this man is condemned.
Brave though he is, his hair stands on end,
But he knows what will happen and he puts on a face.
It’s his tough-guy mask so he won’t go out in disgrace.
His friend the priest visits him one last time,
And asks him a favour that’s way out of line.
While he’s giving his friend his last rites,
He asks him to cry and put up a fight,
And sob and plead like a scared little child.
He gets a big NO for a suggestion so wild.

Cagney is a tough guy who grew up on the streets.
He’s been in gunfights and fistfights and dirty misdeeds.
He’s a criminal con and everyone fears him.
He even has fans who wish they were near him.
What possible reason could his very best friend
Give to request this despicable end?
“The kids,” says the preacher.
“They look up to you like their teacher.
They want to take on the life you’ve inspired.
They want to become like the man they admire.
If you have any love for these boys,
And the thousands of others who think crime is a joy,
Then do them a favour and let them all down.”
Cagney responded with a quick little frown.
He did not agree to do as he was asked,
And his friend left him alone to contemplate his last.

When the big event comes, Cagney’s not to be seen.
Rather, we only hear him offscreen.
They come grab his arms and he starts screaming in terror,
Begging for mercy from the electric chair.
He does this in front of all people present,
Including reporters, who will relay this event,
One that everyone nationwide will review,
Including, of course, the Dead End Kids, too.
The boys read about it after the preacher returns,
And ask him the truth so that they can learn.
“Did he really go out that way?” they inquire.
“He did. I was there. The reporter’s not a liar.”
He leaves the boys feeling upset and downcast,
And that’s where the film leaves us at last.

I like this film. It was very well made.
And still holds up in this day and age.
It resolves all the film’s questions, notwithstanding
The rather unclear and ambiguous ending.
What really happened? Will we ever really know?
How did his execution really go?
Was Cagney such a saint that he just did as was asked,
Or was his toughness just a dressing, and he shattered like glass?
For this film to leave that question floating like haze,
We have an ending we’ll remember till the end of our days.
The ending alone makes this film stand out
Above similar pictures with similar clout,
With similar characters cheating their friend,
And ultimately meeting their end.
For entertainment alone, I’d give it five, not four,
And for that little bit extra, another star more.

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