There are many movies that just don't hold up when you revisit them. They are tinged with a glow of nostalgia that quickly fades away in front of your older eyes. Many were just aimed precisely at the you as you were then, compared to the you of today. But many of the classics can be relied on not to disappoint. They endure for a reason. That's what I was hoping when I finally revisited Angels With Dirty Faces anyway, a film that I loved as a young boy, and a film that would always set me to tears every time I watched it (seriously, my mother would have a towel ready for me as things moved towards the finale, and I would cover my red, snotty, bawling face with it as the end credits rolled).
There's a bit more going on here than I remembered. I forgot, for example, that Humphrey Bogart played a shady lawyer who makes his name, and riches, off stolen loot that was being held for his client (Rocky Sullivan, played by James Cagney). And I forgot how the third act brings everything together, with a net closing around Rocky thanks to the persistence of a friend (Father Jerry O'Connolly, played by Pat O'Brien) who wants to clean the criminal element out of the neighbourhood.
But let me start at the beginning. Rocky and Jerry are first seen as a pair of cheeky kids. They try to steal some pens from a railway carriage, are caught in the act, and flee. Jerry slips, Rocky picks him up. They run. unfortunately, Rocky isn't quite as quick, which leads to him being caught. He won't give up his friend to help lighten the sentence, and so he begins a life mostly spent behind bars, in between further criminal activities.
Fast forward to Rocky and Jerry as adults, two men who ended up on two very different paths, but also two men who immediately rekindle their friendship when they meet up again. And both men end up offering a helping hand to a group of young larcenists (The Dead End Kids) - Jerry has known them for some time, Rocky meets the group when they try to steal his wallet. That's the main story. The kids idolise Rocky, once they realise who he is, and Jerry tries to use this in a positive way. Meanwhile, Rocky is also wanting to get his money back and make himself a more comfortable life, others will go to deadly lengths to stop that from happening, and there's a woman (Laury, played by Ann Sheridan) who catches the eye of our (anti-)hero.
Based on a scenario by Rowland Brown, Angels With Dirty Faces is a perfect combination of a wonderful script (by John Wexley and Warren Duff), great direction (from Michael Curtiz), and dazzling star power. It's also a perfect combination of gangster action, comedy, and a heart-swelling look at how strong the bonds of friendship can be when forged at the right age.
I am a fan of Cagney in pretty much anything he ever did, but this remains one of his best performances, allowing him to play the comfortable tough guy role that made him famous while injecting a lot more humour and sweetness. O'Brien is a bit stiffer in his role, but that's not a major negative, considering the very earnest and unwavering part he plays in the proceedings. Bogart is as good as ever (I may not have seen much of his work while a youngster, but became a firm fan of his in my adult movie-watching years), all about his self-enrichment and self-preservation, and Sheridan does well to make a lasting impression in a film that is otherwise all about the guys. As for the Dead End Kids, well, it's perhaps inevitable that I don't enjoy their antics quite as much today as I did when I was a youngster, but they're still an amusing and likeable bunch.
I eventually covered the beginning of the film and I guess I should end on the ending. I won't reveal any details, because I don't believe the age of a movie should let people assume that everyone already knows all about it, but I will say that it still packs a punch. It's in line with the whole direction of the story, it's played beautifully by all involved, and, yes, I may have had a quivering lip while I tried to stop my eyes leaking everywhere.
Here's a DVD copy available.
Americans can get it here.