Saturday 23 June 2012

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Crime does not pay, get it? Do I have to spell it out for you, dumb-ass? This is apparently what Hollywood in the 30’ies tried to tell us, of course with the Hayes code forcing the hand.

But crime does pay. Gangster movies were and still are popular at the box office. The public fascination with the tough gangster is apparently a constant and Hollywood is ever ready to milk that cow. Only they cannot have the gangster win God forbid.

Man, I have seen that story sooo many times. Old versions, new versions da di da di da. It is a template formula already tried a number of time in the 30’ies when ”Angels with Dirty Faces” came out in 38. And frankly I am sick to the bone with the whole gangster-make-it-big-but-eat-dirt-in-the-end plot. So I am pretty biased at the outset of watching this kind of movies.

“Angels with Dirty Faces”’s special angle is that simple chance destines two friend to very different futures. One sees the light and become a priest, while the other is sent to reform school and become a hardboiled gangster. Many years later the gangster, played by Cagney, returns to his old neighborhood to collect some dirty money deposited with his lawyer, played by Bogart. While there he seeks out his old friend the priest, played by O’Brien and they restart their old friendship.


Through some machinations the gangster gets his money from the not so cooperative lawyer and his allies and the gangster is king of the world with a beautiful woman and nice suits and tons of money. Meanwhile the priest believes he can set him straight but is worried about the influence the gangster has on the neighborhood children. They look up to the gangster and he supplies them with money and attention. So when the gangster is finally caught the priest must convince the gangster to go down whining so the kids can see that he is no hero and that crime does not pay.

--End of spoiler—

The acting is okay, especially Cagney who is almost typecast as the tough gangster. When we think of what a gangster is like we think of Cagney. The quality of the production is also top notch for the late thirties and the use of light and shadow in the end is very German expressionism. So what is wrong? I should be happy.

My problem is the hypocrisy of being so explicit and moralizing in telling us that crime does not pay when obviously the success of this movie says that it does pay off big time. Again and again.

Maybe I am just fed up with gangster movies.

A funny and totally unrelated detail: You know that classic and recurrent scene where the villain has emptied his gun and in frustration starts throwing the gun after the cops? I believe it started here.


  1. This is a rather over-moralizing film. I can see how you'd get fed up with the gangster always getting the short end of the stick in Hollywood, but the morality police dictated it so. The ending is what pisses me off--Cagney's character would have never done that.

    1. The priest is a prick and the producers thinks their audience consists of idiots. I do not like this movie.