Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) Review

Director: Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

James Cagney returned to the role of gangster in 1938 with the popular crime-drama Angels with Dirty Faces. Here, a group of inner-city kids find themselves torn between the influences of tough mobster Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and virtuous priest Jerry Connelly (Pat O’Brien). Who will they follow in the footsteps of? Who will survive to the ending? Is James Cagney the best basketball referee of all time? Humphrey Bogart also shows up as corrupt lawyer James Frazier.

Cagney gives one of the strongest performances of his career here (he was given an Oscar nomination for Best Actor). The acting is terrific across the board, and the use of light and shadow is excellent. Overall, this movie is not as nitty-gritty as The Public Enemy (1931), action-packed as ‘G’ Men (1935), or ferocious as White Heat (1949), but Angels with Dirty Faces has a clear identity of its own.

This is a very well-paced gangster film, with it moving from scene to scene with amazing grace. On the action front, things are pretty solid. The big action moment, the final shootout, has got to be one of the very best gunfights in cinema up to that point in history. Cagney apparently had actual bullets fired in his general area during filming. Director Michael Curtiz (who would later helm Casablanca [1942]) is no stranger when it comes to exciting action.

It’s not quite up there with the aforementioned White Heat or The Public Enemy, but Angels with Dirty Faces is still one of Cagney’s best flicks. The picture’s ambiguous ending has been debated by fans for decades, and the acting still holds up. This one is certainly recommended. In Home Alone (1990), a movie titled Angels with Filthy Souls is watched on television, and, in its sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992), a film named Angels with Even Filthier Souls makes an appearance.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

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