1938 / Best Director

Film #633: Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

In my last post I talked about how Clarence Brown earned his nomination for directing two movies and indeed it’s rare for anyone to be given two Oscar nods in the directing category in the same year. Part of the reason for this is that for years a rule was in place to stop directors earning more than one nomination in the directing category per year. Although this rule has since been amended, it was enacted when director Michael Curtiz dominated the 1938 ceremony receiving nominations for forgettable Best Picture nominee Four Daughters and iconic crime movie Angels with Dirty Faces; which is the subject of this post.

I thought I knew what to expect from Angels with Dirty Faces, especially as it starred James Cangey in the lead role who was notorious for his role in gangster movies. Certainly, Cagney’s character of Rocky Sullivan is portrayed as a gangster-in-the-making as the early scenes in the film depict his early life of crime; being bounced from reform school to prison every few years. The robbery he carries out with his lawyer accomplice Frazier, played by Humphrey Bogart, sees Sullivan behind bars once again although he’s assured by his friend that the hundred thousand dollars they stole will be his once he’s released. The movie then follows two stories on the one hand we see Rocky attempt to get his loot back from Frazier whilst being double-crossed by the lawyer and the town’s top gangster Mac Sullivan. Running concurrently to this is Rocky’s return to his old neighbourhood and his reunion with friend Jerry; with whom he carried out his first robbery, and who is now a Catholic priest. He also encounters Laury Martin, another old childhood friend, with whom he shares a flirtatious relationship with throughout the movie which really doesn’t go anywhere. However, Rocky’s most important relationship in the film is with a group of youngsters who form Jerry’s basketball team and who participate in petty crimes. These boys being to hero-worship Rocky, something Jerry isn’t too pleased about and when he finally ingratiates himself with Frazier and Mac, the priest decides to act. The third act of the film is an odd one, and to me doesn’t follow-up on the promise of what’s come before, as Jerry attempts to expose the corruption at the heart of the community. Rocky then puts himself in harm’s way to protect Jerry from his inevitable murder at the hands of the movie’s key criminals, a decision which ultimately seems he kill two officers. Although I found this whole sequence rather rushed, the final scenes which depict Rocky’s execution were tenderly handled and his final decision to die a coward rather than a hero made him into one of cinema’s most endearing anti-heroes and demonstrated Cagney’s fantastic range.

It’s Cagney’s performance for which the movie has been most remembered for and his charisma certainly gives the movie its most powerful element. Although I haven’t seen much of Cagney’s work from the time, it did feel like he was playing on the audience’s expectations of his character and subverted them splendidly throughout. Despite Rocky being raised in a life of crime, the film showed his caring side in the way that he took the young street kids under his wing and later when he tried to donate some of his ill-gotten gains to Jerry’s youth centre. In fact, his shooting spree occurs purely to protect his priest friend and his decision to break down in the electric chair is similarly thanks to his bond with Jerry. However, as much as he is empathetic, Cagney’s Rocky is similarly wily as is witnessed in the way he continually outwits the goons that Mac and Frazier send after him. Possibly my favourite part of the movie is when Mac sends a squad of underlings to assassinate Rocky in a drugstore, not realising that he’s constantly one step ahead of them. This set piece, along with many others in the movie, is a testament to the brilliant direction of Michael Curtiz whose style here clearly influenced almost every crime movie over the last eighty years. Although I did feel he overdid the flying newspaper headline bit to an extent, the way in which Curtiz directs both action and tragedy is perfect here so he more than deserved his Oscar nod for this movie. The action in Angels with Dirty Faces is perfectly paced throughout and the Curtiz’s crowning achievement is the final scene in which we see Rocky’s face for the final time before he’s electrocuted. There were several nagging issues I had with the movie; one was the way in which Ann Sheridan’s Laury was barely used after her initial introduction which is a shame as I felt the character had a lot more to give. Similarly, I found that the characters of Mac and Frazier were both quite one-dimensional which is odd seeing as how the film’s lead is an multi-layered protagonist who you can never second guess.

It’s odd trying to decide whether Angels with Dirty Faces deserved a Best Picture nomination as, between 1934 and 1943, there were between ten and twelve movies nominated for the top prize every year. In fact, during that period only Angels with Dirty Faces and the film in our next post garnered Best Director nominations without being recognised in the Best Picture category. I personally feel that Angels with Dirty Faces is better than at least half of the movies nominated that year with perhaps only Curtiz’s own The Adventures of Robin Hood and Renoir’s Grand Illusion being superior offerings. One thing I know without a doubt is that Cagney deserved that year’s Best Actor Oscar especially seeing as the award went to Spencer Tracy for what I consider to almost being a supporting role in the saccharine Boys Town. Cagney’s role is his most iconic and his portrayal of this likeable criminal who’s trying to redeem himself was just incredible feat of acting. It’s a shame that Cagney earned a consolatory Oscar four years later in the rather weak musical Yankee Doodle Dandy as it’s for his role in this engrossing crime film that he’s ultimately most-remembered for.

Next time we visit the only other movie to garner a Best Director nod during the 1934-1943 period which was also the first film to be nominated in all four of the academy’s acting categories.

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