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Classic Hollywood crime drama should not be missed. 4.5 Stars

A brilliant character study amalgamated with an engrossing crime drama, Michael Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces is one of the jewels in the Warner Bros. gangster crown.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Released: 26 Nov 1938
Rated: Passed
Runtime: 97 min
Director: Michael Curtiz
Genre: Crime, Drama, Film-Noir
Cast: James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Humphrey Bogart
Writer(s): John Wexley, Warren Duff, Rowland Brown
Plot: A priest tries to stop a gangster from corrupting a group of street kids.
IMDB rating: 7.9
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Warner Brothers
Distributed By: Warner Archive
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 37 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: All
Release Date: 12/07/2021
MSRP: $21.99

The Production: 5/5

A brilliant character study amalgamated with an engrossing crime drama, Michael Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces is one of the jewels in the Warner Bros. gangster crown. With a fistful of terrific performances and terse, terrific direction, Angels with Dirty Faces is every bit as gripping and emotionally satisfying today as it was when it premiered over eighty years ago.

Childhood pals Rocky Sullivan (Frankie Burke as a kid, James Cagney as an adult) and Jerry Connolly (William Tracy as a kid, Pat O’Brien as an adult) are devoted to one another, but each takes separate paths as they mature: Rocky through the penal system to serve hard time and Jerry through the seminary to the priesthood. When Rocky is finally released, he scores a $100K haul before being arrested again and takes a three-year rap for the syndicate co-run with lawyer James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart). By the time he gets out, Frazier has risen in the organization now headed by Mac Keefer (George Bancroft), but the two want to cut Rocky out of their graft and corruption. Rocky outsmarts them and blackmails his way into a three-way parley with Frazier and Keefer, cheered on by neighborhood toughs (the Dead End Kids), while Father Connolly does his best with the help of neighborhood good girl Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan) to keep Rocky from sinking too deeply into the syndicate’s dirty deals. But Keefer and Frazier continue to look for ways to sink Rocky so that it eventually leads to a showdown where the toughest and smartest of the trio must prevail.

Screenwriters John Wexley and Warren Duff have fashioned an appealing story of sociological interest wrapped within the confines of a crime drama with an unbeatable cast of characters from street toughs to the clergy and everyone in between, all in an economical ninety-seven minutes. From an early sequence showing the young Rocky and Jerry at their own personal crossroads through an effective montage that traces Rocky’s downward progress through reform schools, local and state penitentiaries, we are instantly attracted to the charismatic Rocky Sullivan and watch him claim what’s his with a swagger and just enough cockiness to maintain his appeal (his sense of self and his undeniable magnetism makes it completely understandable why the street kids would be drawn to his personality). Not only does Rocky know how to conduct himself with rats of his own stripe, but director Michael Curtiz directs a local basketball game in which the street gang (played by Dead End Kids Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Gabriel Dell, Huntz Hall, and Bernard Punsley) attempts to strong arm the rules but are completely put in their place by the dominating and magnetic Rocky that sets up the gang’s adulation of him for the rest of the film leading to its climactic moment of truth which ranks as one of cinema’s most unforgettable moments. Michael Curtiz stages the last mile with alternating close-ups and shadowy long shots that maximizes the tension so masterfully that first timers to the film will be on the edge of their seats, and even repeat viewers will be caught up in the emotions of the moment: powerful and extraordinarily impressive.

James Cagney’s sensational performance as Rocky Sullivan earned him the New York Critics Best Actor prize and an Oscar nomination, and it inarguably ranks as one of his greatest roles. Beside such charismatic versatility, Pat O’Brien can’t help but seem a little underwhelming as Father Jerry Connolly though he gets one two-fisted moment that comes from nowhere and is one of the film’s high points. Ann Sheridan in an early role makes an appealing neighborhood girl for Rocky, but a romantic entanglement between the two isn’t really explored, and she fades in significance in later reels. The Dead End Kids, however, provide major moments to savor in the drama, and Billy Halop as gang leader Soapy takes top honors with able assists from Bobby Jordan’s Swing and Leo Gorsey’s Bim. Humphrey Bogart inches another rung up the ladder toward top stardom which was still a couple years away as the shifty district attorney James Frazier while George Bancroft oozes moral decay as syndicate head Mac Keefer. And Frankie Burke’s looks and vocal mimicking of Cagney as the youthful Rocky is an astonishing impersonation that sets up the star’s ascendency to crime lord perfectly.

Video: 5/5

3D Rating: NA

The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Taken from the original camera negative, the imagery couldn’t be bettered with sharp, detailed cinematography and a grayscale that’s second to none in its depth of blacks and crispness of whites. You won’t see any stray marks or visual anomalies in this impeccable transfer. The movie has been divided into 38 chapters.

Audio: 4.5/5

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound mix is pristine but slightly lacking in volume. All of the dialogue has been superbly recorded and has been mixed with Max Steiner’s background score and the multiple sound effects making for a near-perfect blend of sound elements. There are no problems with age-related hiss, pops, flutter, or crackle.

Special Features: 5/5

Warner Night at the Movies (SD): Leonard Maltin has a 4:20 introduction to a succession of shorts: a trailer for Boy Meets Girl, a newsreel, a musical short Out Where the Stars Begin, and the animated Porky and Daffy.

Audio Commentary: film historian Dana Polan provides a full analysis of the film with a bit of background on the actors and director but much more oriented to describing what’s on the screen before us.

Angels with Dirty Faces: Whaddya Hear? Whaddya Say? (22:16, SD): critical analysis of the film with movie historians Lincoln Hurst, Rudy Behlmer, Drew Casper, Alain Silver, Eric Lax, and Andrew Sarris.

Lux Radio Theater (59:07): 1939 radio adaptation of the film with James Cagney and Pat O’Brien.

Theatrical Trailer (3:20, HD)

Overall: 4.5/5

Michael Curtiz earned a well-deserved Best Director nomination for Angels with Dirty Faces (and ended up competing against himself for his direction of Four Daughters), one of the real landmarks in the Warner Bros. crime film series. This new Warner Archive Blu-ray presents this classic film in pristine quality which makes it a must have for lovers of the great films from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Highest recommendation!

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Published by

Matt Hough

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benbess

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Matt H. writes in his excellent review: "Not only does Rocky know how to conduct himself with rats of his own stripe, but director Michael Curtiz directs a local basketball game in which the street gang (played by Dead End Kids Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Gabriel Dell, Huntz Hall, and Bernard Punsley) attempts to strong arm the rules but are completely put in their place by the dominating and magnetic Rocky that sets up the gang’s adulation of him for the rest of the film leading to its climactic moment of truth which ranks as one of cinema’s most unforgettable moments. Michael Curtiz stages the last mile with alternating close-ups and shadowy long shots that maximizes the tension...."

The direction, cinematography (Sol Polito), and editing (Owen Marks) of this movie impressed me. A rather deluxe crime movie that clearly Warner gave first-class treatment. Angels with Dirty Faces is now one of my favorite movies of 1938, more or less tied with Robin Hood, In Old Chicago, and maybe Boys Town. But there are still a lot of movies from 1938 that I haven't seen.


Here's some interesting trivia from imdb....

The Dead End Kids terrorized the set during shooting. They threw other actors off with their ad-libbing, and once cornered co-star Humphrey Bogart and stole his trousers. They didn't figure on James Cagney's street-bred toughness, however. The first time Leo Gorcey pulled an ad-lib on Cagney, the star stiff-armed the young actor right above the nose. From then on the gang behaved.

To play Rocky, James Cagney drew on his memories of growing up in New York's Yorkville, a tough ethnic neighborhood on the upper east side, just south of Spanish Harlem.. His main inspiration was a drug-addicted pimp who stood on a street corner all day hitching his trousers, twitching his neck, and repeating, "Whadda ya hear! Whadda ya say!" Those mannerisms came back to haunt Cagney. He later wrote in his autobiography, "I did those gestures maybe six times in the picture. That was over 30 years ago--and the impressionists have been doing me doing him ever since."

A montage features a shot of gangsters bombing a storefront. This shot is actually an alternate angle of the bombing of a store in The Public Enemy (1931).

Because of the controversy over gangster films, the picture was banned outright in Denmark, China, Poland, Finland and parts of Canada and Switzerland.

James Cagney's other inspiration for Rocky was his childhood friend, Peter "Bootah" Hessling, who was convicted of murder and "sent to the electric chair" on 7/21/27. The night Bootah was executed, Cagney was playing in a Broadway show and wept upon hearing of his friend's death.

The moment in which Rocky forces a trailing hood to take his place inside the phone booth in the pharmacy to get killed was inspired by the killing of notorious New York gangster Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll. In the real incident, Coll was locked in a gang war with Dutch Schultz. During the war Coll hid in an apartment above a pharmacy and would only come out to go into the pharmacy and call his girlfriend from the phone booth. Schultz found out about this and when Coll went to make his routine phone call, two of Schultz's gunmen walked in and shot Coll to death.

While filming Rocky's shootout with the police, one scene called for James Cagney to be right at the opening as machine-gun bullets took out the windows above his head. At this point in his career Cagney had experience with the unpredictability of using live gunfire and he later recalled that "common sense or a hunch" made him wary about the upcoming scene, and he finally decided to tell director Michael Curtiz to shoot the scene in process. As Cagney walked away, the professional machine-gunner--a man named Burke--fired the shots. One of the bullets ricocheted, hitting the steel edge of the window and going right through the wall where Cagney's head had been. This experience convinced Cagney that "flirting this way with real bullets was ridiculous".

Rocky's execution was shot at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, NY.
Architect Lewis Pilcher designed the death house--it went into service in the early 1920s. The building is still at Sing Sing Penitentiary.


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