Angels with Dirty Faces

January 28, 2012 11 Min Read

Review by: Daniel Pulliam

Plot: What’s it about?

It might be considered a bit overdone these days, but the story of two friends at odds has been a Hollywood staple for as long as there have been motion pictures. “Angels With Dirty Faces” was one of the first films to exploit the premise to the hilt, however, taking the “good friend / bad friend” theme to the extremity of priest and gangster. James Cagney plays the latter character, Rocky Sullivan, as a hot-headed, charismatic caricature with just enough realism to make him believable. It’s an incredibly impressive balance that holds up wonderfully even today. Pat O’Brien’s anti-hero, Father Jerry Connolly, is also impressive, though unavoidably drawn more into the film’s melodramatic sentimentalities than Cagney’s street-wise Sullivan. The film even has the audacity to imply that these characters’ divergence in fundamental ideology is more attributable to something as trivial as running faster or slower at a given moment than to any specific personality trait. It’s a concept that, while debatable to this day, was well ahead of its time and perhaps more indicative of present-day liberalism than the deeply-etched lines of morality of decades past. It’s this dynamic that makes this film such an interesting character study for its time and such an intriguing watch even for audiences of today. That’s not to say that the film still works on every level it intends to (more on that in a moment), but it does do a great many things perfectly, and there’s certainly plenty to admire.

First off, the acting, as mentioned, is superb on all fronts. Cagney does dominate what is obviously a vehicle for his talents, and O’Brien’s performance is exceptional – if only because it isn’t completely eclipsed by Cagney’s tour-de-force. But the supporting characters are to be commended as well. Humphrey Bogart (as the shady lawyer who betrays Rocky), Ann Sheridan (as Rocky’s defiant love interest), and all of “The Dead End Kids” (as the members of an impressionable gang that idolizes Rocky) are equally up to task here, and I’m certain that the film would never have enjoyed such success if it hadn’t been for these players giving Cagney and O’Brien such a fleshed-out stage on which to work their magic. Cinematography is also of particular note in this film, demonstrating a level of ingenuity and craft rare in films of this type. More than once I had to remind myself that this film was made long before the kinds of shots on display were made reasonably easy to film. This is an impressive movie to be sure, but a movie that is, at least for me, missing something vital. Perhaps it’s the relatively short running time and the comparably ambitious story. Crammed concisely into a mere 97 minutes of screen time, the action seems a bit forced at times. Or perhaps it’s something less tangible. I simply never got over the feeling that this film wasn’t adding up to anything more than the sum of its admittedly exemplary parts.

I must admit, I feel more than a bit unqualified to write a review for this film. That’s not to say that I didn’t appreciate it, but I can’t help but feel as though much of its power was unavoidably diluted by my contemporary tastes. What was shocking and dramatic in the 1930’s simply doesn’t have the same punch today as it did then. This is no fault of the film per se, as it does boast a phenomenally strong cast and obviously high production values. It simply didn’t have what I felt was the intended impact. This should not dissuade any fan of film noir from picking this disc up, however, as it is generally considered one of the classics of the gangster genre. Cagney’s performance is worth the price of admission alone, and if you’re the type of person who can suspend a little more belief in the hyper-realism that’s become so popular these days, you’ll probably get a bit more out of the film as a drama than I did. There’s also something to be said about a film like this actually ringing truer than movies do today. This may border on cheese and melodrama at times, but is that really any less realistic than entire environments that don’t exist except on film? At least films like this had to rely on character-driven stories that made sense. And, as much as I’m tempted to call this film out for being merely a collection of modern-day cliches, I have to begrudgingly admit that this is probably where many of the cliches I’m referring to were born. On that basis, I can hardly fault what is an otherwise very good film.

Video: How does it look?

The film comes in a disappointing, non-anamorphic full-frame transfer. The good news is that black levels are generally good, edge enhancement is minimal, and the film’s original composition is intact. The bad news is just about everything else. There’s an extremely distracting amount of grain and debris present on this print, even for a film made in the 1930’s. The aforementioned black levels, while decent, occasionally tend to be a bit bright for my tastes. There’s also a very distracting hue problem that occurs at varying intervals throughout the film. The movie’s yellowish whites at times suddenly become bluish whites instead. While that might
seem like a small caveat, it is extremely jarring in a black and white film. Color temperature this inconsistent makes one wonder why Warner didn’t simply de-saturate the entire picture. I would even go so far as recommending turning the color all the way down on your television to avoid this effect. You’re going to have to take this transfer with a heavy dose of lowered expectations to prevent disappointment. This is even more upsetting given the historical importance of a film of this vintage. Come on, Warner – the film deserves better than this.

Audio: How does it sound?

The included Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono track does what it needs to do, I suppose. I mean, no one would go into this film expecting any more than this, but range is extremely limited here, even for a Mono track. It’s not a bad mix necessarily, just one that doesn’t go above or beyond what it needs to do to get the job done. Then again, it doesn’t exactly disappoint, either (which, after the sub-par transfer, is a relief). The audio here sounds (understandably) bottled up and isolated. It’s not a big deal, but I did find myself thinking from time to time about how much better the movie may have played out for me had the audio been more aggressive and in line with what I was seeing onscreen. The climax of the film would certainly seem to lend itself to a better presentation than this. Then again, as I’ve said, no one’s going to be surprised by this, and I can’t imagine anyone being put off of this release by the strength – or relative weakness – of the audio.

Supplements: What are the extras?

If there’s one area this release excels, it’s in the extras department. First up is an extremely interesting featurette entitled “Warner Night At The Movies 1938” which takes the viewer on a nostalgic journey into the sights and sounds of the period and puts one in the proper mindset for the film. I loved this idea and I hope it’s something that continues being done on future releases. This featurette includes a period newsreel, the musical short “Out Where the Stars Begin”, a “Porky and Daffy” cartoon, and the film’s theatrical trailer (which reveals so much as to negate most of the reason to watch the movie itself). Another featurette, “Angels With
Dirty Faces: Whaddya Hear? Whaddya Say?” is a nice little 20-minute piece that is a worthwhile extra, although I tended to find it a bit too self-congratulatory for my tastes. This one basically breaks down into several different interviewees falling all over themselves to explain the brilliance of the films stars and, in particular, of director Michael Curtiz. The commentary by film historian Dana Polan, on the other hand, is informative, consistent, and exceedingly thorough. I was amazed at how much information was on this track. It’s a very good effort and will enthrall any fan of this film. Next up is a real rarity: the original radio production of the film starring the film’s two lead actors. This is quite the historical footnote on this release, and will undoubtedly be of incalculable worth to collectors. In the end, you’ll have to bite the bullet and buy this DVD on the strength of its supplements alone.

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