Thursday, October 28, 2021

Tonight's Movie: Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival

Most of Saturday's films at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival were new to me!

Following THE CRUEL TOWER (1956) the next film screened that day was ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938).

ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES has been hard to see for a number of years due to rights issues. Festival programmer and host Alan K. Rode was able to arrange a screening of a 35mm print, which we were told was the first time the print had been out of the vault in seven years.

Rather amazingly, just a couple of days after I returned home from the festival the Warner Archive Collection announced that the movie will be released on Blu-ray this December.

ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES was written by John Wexley and Warren Duff, with uncredited assistance from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It's one of Hollywood's favorite '30s plots, in which two childhood friends, Rocky and Jerry (Frankie Burke and William Tracy), grow up in different directions.

Rocky, played as an adult by James Cagney, is in and out of jail for most of his life, while Jerry (Pat O'Brien) becomes a priest who works with poor at-risk youths from the old neighborhood.

When Rocky is released from his latest stint in jail, he briefly seems to clean up his act, spending time with Jerry and another childhood friend, Laury (Ann Sheridan, with Marilyn Knowlden as the younger Laury).

However, Rocky is out for vengeance when he realizes lawyer James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), who was supposed to be setting up a business for the two of them while Rocky was in jail, has made it big but has no intention of cutting Rocky in as promised.

I've heard from a number of people who love this film dearly, but while I found it fairly entertaining, at the same time it was probably the least interesting film for me from a most enjoyable movie weekend.

The lead actors, of course, are all terrific. Cagney tends to get a lot of the credit for his original and compelling portrayal of Rocky, who just can't live a clean life, but I think O'Brien doesn't get quite enough recognition for playing a good guy like Jerry and keeping him believable and interesting.

I also found Bogart highly entertaining as Rocky's double-crossing business partner. Ann Sheridan's role wasn't quite big enough, fading away in the late going, but what's on screen is good.

What put a damper on the film for me, though, was the group of actors collectively known as the Dead End Kids (Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell, and Bernard Punsly). Their obnoxious characters are, put plainly, extremely boring; nothing much distinguishes the boys from one another, nor do they have any emotional range. Since they have a huge amount of screen time, it really detracts from the film.

At one point I wondered why Rocky was spending so much time with children, and as quickly as the question occurred to me, so did the answer: He's still a child himself, not really cut out to interact with mature adults responsibly over the long term. He's also egotistical enough to enjoy the boys fawning over him...a situation which leads to a memorable request from Jerry near movie's end.

The movie was directed by Michael Curtiz, whose life was the subject of an excellent biography by Alan Rode. It was fun seeing back-to-back films starring the subjects of his biographies, as he also wrote about Charles McGraw, star of THE CRUEL TOWER.

The film was scored by Max Steiner, who was also celebrated at the previous day's screening of THE BIG SLEEP (1946) with Steiner's biographer Steven C. Smith on hand for an interview.

The black and white photography was by Sol Polito. I enjoyed picking out a couple familiar locations from the Warner Bros. backlot over the course of the film.

The Warner Archive Blu-ray will be released on December 14th.  Update: My review of the Blu-ray may be read here.


Blogger Jerry Entract said...

Hi Laura,
I have always been put off myself by the presence of those Dead End Kids. However I recently watched "ANGELS..." recently after an absence of many years and enjoyed the film thoroughly.
The kids, of course, were first featured strongly in Wyler's "DEAD END" where their behaviour was more vicious and dark. But of course WB was heavily into showing the effects of poverty on people of all ages during these years. These films packed quite a wallop!

12:29 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jerry, I was interested to know you weren't a big fan of the Dead End Kids either. Glad you enjoyed revisiting the film!

I'll be taking a second look at the movie soon thanks to the film's Blu-ray release. Perhaps they'll be easier to watch the second time.

I haven't seen DEAD END since I was a kid -- one to revisit!

Best wishes,

1:07 PM  

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