Angels with Dirty Faces

In Kierkegaardian terms, the priest in Angels with Dirty Faces represents not so much the religious sphere as the ethical. This is not a movie of ultimate concerns or the paradoxes of faith, but of the either/or dichotomy of esthetic damnation (represented by the gangster milieu) versus “being good” and creating a good and wholesome community–characterized by rec centers and young men playing basketball rather than engaging in vandalism and petty larceny. Pat O’Brien, as the priest and former teenage hoodlum, cuts a pretty good figure. He’s a sensitive, intelligent priest, but also a dude who is capable of (a) decking some jerk in a barroom altercation and (b) taking on organized crime and enlisting the support of the media in order to create a place where young men have a fighting chance to grow into upstanding citizens. His childhood pal, Rocky, played by James Cagney, upstages him of course, and is the life force of the movie; but Fr. Jerry proves a powerful influence on Rocky. Aside from Cagney’s dynamic performance, the film has a lot to recommend it–including an outstanding performance by a young Humphrey Bogart as a slick and subtly sleazy lawyer who gets [spoiler alert] righteously capped by Rocky in due course. Cagney’s Rocky is a charismatic character and there is a running motif in scene after scene that highlights how his genius as a gangster is not unlike the genius of an actor playing roles. At the end, that acting motif rises to a new level, being enlisted by Fr. Jerry in the cause of the ethical–and it is quite a stunning finish. Does it have anything to do with faith? Well, maybe not, although Cagney’s charisma and verve, and the brilliance of Rocky’s own performances, perhaps indicate a trajectory in the direction of the religious sphere where we might assume Fr. Jerry ultimately dwells.

Priest portrayal grade: C+
Overall grade: A-

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  1. Marc Magisana says

    Good old movie – in the Kierkegaardian sense, I see Cagney as the aesthetic hero (not hard to see him as prototype of gangsta/rocker) and O'Brien as the ethical (defender of bourgeois). Too bad they didn't include a 3rd religous type hero for transcendence (claude rains?)

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