James Cagney once said about acting, ‘Learn your lines, find your mark, look ‘em in the eye and tell ‘em the truth.’ And he did. That was the thing about him. You always believed him, no matter what he was doing. And it was fascinating to watch. The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), in particular, are all him and about him.
The Public Enemy (dir. William A. Wellman) follows Tom Powers (Cagney) and his best friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), two neighbourhood gangsters from Chicago, throughout their lives of crime. The sheer brutality, honesty and rawness of it, both as a gangster film and a family drama, is almost unparalleled, and to have it boiled down to just ‘the grapefruit scene’ is infuriating, even though I understand it’s meant to be a representation of who Tom Powers is and what he can’t seem to be able to do. There are, however, many jaw-dropping moments throughout the film, such as the rain-soaked revenge scene, or the scene where Tom is raped by his friend’s girlfriend after she gets him drunk. Not to mention the ending. Oh, that ending…
What I love about this film is that Tom Powers is a failure in almost every way. He is a petty gangster, a hoodlum, and he knows it. He wants to break away from that but something always stands in the way. He’s an impulsive, violent thug with mother issues, and arguably no redeeming qualities, and the deeper he sinks, the harder he fights to get back up. But his moment in the sun never comes. Deservingly so. He came from nothing and he died with nothing, in one of cinema’s most horrible and brutal endings. The raw nature of the film makes Tom Powers a wonderful character. He’s so charmingly detestable, he’ll make you want to shove a grapefruit in his face.
Angels With Dirty Faces (dir. Michael Curtiz) is, again, a tale of crime and friendship. In it, childhood best friends Rocky Sullivan (Cagney in an Oscar-nominated performance) and Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien) begin their adolescence as, you guessed it, neighbourhood hoodlums. However, as they grow older, their lives take different paths. Jerry is now a priest, and Rocky is an ex-convict. The famous Dead End kids make an appearance as the neighbourhood gang who idolizes Rocky Sullivan and whom Father Connolly wants to protect from a life of crime at all costs.
Upon his release from prison, Rocky goes to see Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) about the money he owes him. This encounter leads Rocky right back to his old ways, and for the rest of the film, he becomes a sort of anti-hero and a very ambiguous character that you can’t help but love and root for, right down to the powerful final moments. You never really know where you stand with Rocky. You can tell that he’s probably trying to redeem himself, but at the same time, he can’t help but do what he does best and for which he is worshipped. Because of this, Rocky and Jerry’s friendship is always at risk and is a constant element throughout the film. The love and the affection are still there, but they are on different sides of the moral compass and neither of them will back down, right up until their final moments together.
Angels with Dirty Faces is an incredibly powerful film, with so much going for it, and I like to think of it as a love story in the form of friendship, disguised as a gangster film. Also, might be interesting to point out that James Cagney and Pat O’Brien were actually best friends in real life, which I think is lovely.
What I find interesting about these two films and so many other gangster films of the era is that James Cagney gets his comeuppance in both of them. And in such a heart-wrenching way, as well. Him walking towards the camera in Angels is a wonderful moment. I could watch that on a loop all day along. Oh, and that’s another thing. He had a great face for close-ups. Not in a Greta Garbo way, but in a way that you would feel every single thing that he was feeling in that moment, because it beautifully incapsulated everything that happened in the film previously and signified the character’s breaking point, just like in the revenge scene from The Public Enemy. If there’s a James Cagney close-up, there’s going to be closure. Plot-wise and emotionally. And it’s beautiful.