Mean Streets

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Angels with Dirty Faces

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 28, 2015

James Cagney is an absolute force of nature. I think that Bogart gets most of the credit these days, or most of the press anyway: he’s certainly been the subject of a lot more mythologizing. But Cagney has got to be H-wood’s great anti-hero.

In so many of the films you can’t approve of his choices, his life, even his character. But you can’t resist him either. That’s what makes Angels with Dirty Faces such good melodrama. Good and bad are distinguishable, but the battle is not simple, nor simplistically presented. Rather, we find characters ranged nicely all the way across a moral spectrum. Gangsters here, saintly Pat O’Brien—who is a reformed hoodlum, mind you—there. (Oh, and Ann Sheridan. It seems that whether its chivalry that’s operating, or melodrama, or both intermingled, there’s not much for a woman in this universe.) In between you’ve got this spectacularly charismatic gunsel, and all these punks that worship him, standing at a moral crossroads. Altogether it’s perfect ground for a secular Sunday School lesson. Of course none of these characters are all that psychologically serious, and they’re not supposed to be. But they correspond to things that are possible, and real.

As with the conventions of the Commedia dell’arte, this melodrama works because of the humanity of the details, the skill and feeling with which they’re arranged. Performance, design, direction are all tremendous. In sum, here’s a good apology for the Hollywood studios, and for the studio system entire. The prologue demonstrates the point. Look at that expense! Look how spectacularly, yet tastefully laid out! It’s very entertaining, but it’s about something too.

Mind you, some of Hollywood’s inherent and systemic shortcomings are clearly in evidence too. Clear is good, but these pictures aren’t usually too subtle. That means, for all the superb craftsmanship, that they aren’t always that artful either. Also, there can be inadvertent horrors. What O’Brien requires of Cagney makes some sense, or it could also be like what Arthur Miller’s Puritan inquisition required of John Proctor. Still, what a piece of work, what an entertainment! Surely the slappingest, whappingest movie ever made. That basketball game! That march to the chair! That last line! James Cagney is an absolute force of nature.