Angels with Dirty Faces is a Hays Code era gangster film which stars James Cagney as Rocky Sullivan, a notorious gangster with a good side. Rocky grew up what appears to be the Lower East Side with his friend Jerry (Pat O’Brien) getting up to all sorts of misdemeanours and petty crime. One day the boys are being chased through a train yard when Jerry slips and falls in front of a moving train. Rocky saves his friend but as the boys make their escape Rocky is caught and sent to reform school which leads to a life of crime. Years later Jerry is a Priest and having been released from a stint in jail Rocky returns to the old neighbourhood to claim his share of loot from his crooked lawyer Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) but Frazier ain’t taking too kindly to Rocky walking back up in here, you get me, you mutz.
The film features a great central performance from Cagney as well as some brilliant set design and cracking dialogue. It feels a little diluted when compared to earlier pre-Code films but you get the picture of the world in which the characters are living. What is obvious although sometimes too obvious is the message. Sometimes it’s not who you are but where you are that makes you and the film’s black and white telling of this idea is laid out very clearly.