Michael Curtiz: Angels with Dirty Faces

And now for something completely different, although not that different when you really think about it.

Angels with Dirty Faces sees studio-man extraordinaire Michael Curtiz changing course away from the lush theatrical silliness of two of the finest pre-war matinee fluff pieces ever made, and moving toward the darker regions that would occupy the American fascination upon its descent into World War II and the harsher regions of human activity. The US spent a good deal of the 1930s hiding itself from the horrors of both the world and of itself, and Curtiz was a whiz at the sort of aww-shucks adventurous quality used to whisk America off to a dream world where problems didn’t so much trouble as exist to provide delectable, delightful solutions. 1939’s Angels with Dirty Faces does not, at first glance, appear to be the work of the same filmmaker. Tonally, it is the polar opposite of Curtiz’s two great prior works, descending into the muck of seedy, lonesome, grotesques and brutish grime that would become the “film noir” a few years later. Yet, a closer look yields a slightly different take, finding Curtiz using the same style he perfected in his previous films to wildly different ends.

Namely: Michael Curtiz was not a man for realism, but his non-realism was not consistently of a type. His films were united not in the specifics of how they were non-realistic, but simply in how passionately and thoroughly they rejected realism for any other end. His previous films fell in love with grand matinee fluff, his later Yankee Doodle Dandy adored the prim and proper musical theater and the naughty pageantry holding it up in the early days of the twentieth century. Yet, while both Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood confronted danger with a soothing, cheerful sense that in the end, everything would be all right, Angels with Dirty Faces is a filmmaker trafficking in a different kind of non-realism, no longer blanketing America’s fears but divulging them, expanding them, and confronting them head-on.

This 1938 effort is the start of a beautiful nastiness laced all throughout forties American cinema. This is the nastiness of what would become film noir, with Angels positioned right at the knife’s edge of the point where the brutal pre-code American crime films of the early ’30s went off the deep end into an almost expressionist, nightmarish form of harsh non-reality. These noirs capture for America in the 1940s the spirit that very much haunted the post-WWI German Weimar horror films of the 1920s, that of a world thrown into so much chaos and destitution that reality was no longer a known quantity, no longer a guise of safety to hide the self in. Angels with Dirty Faces serves as progenitor to these noirs, dancing right up into a deluded non-naturalism, and in doing so it reminds that a feeling of decayed, troubling, traumatic non-reality was the feeling of a broken-down world circa 1938. Things would get worse, and the film noir would follow it into nihilism, but Angels With Dirty Faces is as good a place for gangster pics to go bad as any.

With Angels with Dirty Faces, we face a particular shift for Curtiz, always the man of sweeping shots and lush romantics. This effort is a sinister crawl all the way, taking on the hardness of the world with cruel, single-minded efficiency that pauses from the cold, calculated, criminal-mastermind urgency of the affair only when the film stops to anxiously look over its shoulder for someone ready to do it harm. It is the story of Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney), more a man-child than a gangster proper, but a proud person who works and commits to his principles, destructive though they may be. At a young age, he and his friend Jerry (Pat O’ Brien) rob a railroad car in a small-time heist that leads to Rocky getting caught and spending time in a youth work camp, eventually moving down toward a life of crime. Jerry, meanwhile, becomes a much-respected priest in his old working class neighborhood, seeing his life’s mission, essentially, in turning youth away from the life he almost grew up to live. The life Rocky lives, in other words, until Rocky comes home again and things don’t go as planned.

As with any James Cagney film, Cagney bullishly dominates the picture, bending it to his will even as he throws himself head-first into the material without question or personal need. One of the great all-time B-actors, and one of the few to gain national recognition in so-called “respectable” films, Cagney’s greatest strength was that he had no ego whatsoever. He played gangsters with absolutely zero sense of ostentatious self-import, essaying not nobles on the wrong side of the law but sniveling brutes. He had a weaselly quality, but there was much more to Cagney than a one-sided goon. Scary though he was he had a certain demented outlaw innocence where-in he just didn’t know any better, wanted to do good, but was ultimately incapable of it. He spends much of Angels with Dirty Faces hurdling teens around, trying to work with Jerry to do better by youth, but he does it less out of personal morality than a confused desire to belong. He is little more than a child at heart, a past-tense Pee-wee Herman with the mind of a kid and the body of a larger kid.

Cagney also matters because Angels is very much a film about Cagney as an actor and as a type. The way Curtiz garishly and challengingly uses Cagney to play the teenage version of himself early on, calling out his famously diminutive size and the nebbish, dirty ways his characters tried to overcome their small stature with hurtful, asocial bullying. It is a film that deliberately plays on the Cagney image, literally casting him in the role of a child and then asking us to accept his growth into a stunted adult soon after. Add to this the way Leo Gorcery, one of the supposed gang of “Dead End Kids” popular in genre pics at the time and who play the teens Cagney wheels around throughout the film, looks very much like a young Cagney, and even looks like his baby-faced double. What we end up seeing is adult Cagney teaching teenage Cagney, but the two don’t look all that different. We question how “adult” the Cagney character really is, and how different he is from the unadorned, brutish kids he takes under his wing. The two-fisted challenge is bold: at once, we must recognize that it is ridiculous to accept the forty year old Cagney as a child, and then and only then we are to realize that, considering all the roles he played, it really isn’t all that difficult to accept him as a child at all. If we think he looks like a worn-out skeleton as a child, he doesn’t look much different as an adult. When he talks to the children, it is as if he is talking to himself, trying to help his younger self down the right path once and for all.

It was a trademark of studio directors that they did not cease control of their films from their actors, that they stuck with the marketing provided by the actors by privileging their talents and not transforming the films into wild director showpieces. Curtiz’s genius here is that he sticks exactly to this mantra, privileging Cagney is most every shot and accepting his actorly image as a star, but ever the sneaky devil, Curtiz gets to have it both ways. He plays on the Cagney image, reading it past itself by extending it to its logical conclusion, creating an almost-literal man-child and destroying any sense of “cool” we expect from the character. He, Cagney in on the know as his partner-in-crime, brashly comments on how dangerous and pitiful all those other supposedly “cool” gangster characters were in Cagney films like The Public Enemy. Together, they critique the actor’s image and the entire cloth of the gangster genre, essentially saying that the entire idea that these characters were “cool” is a fool’s errand. Cagney up against the child that looks like Cagney is an external manifestation of a bifurcated, fractured soul fighting for control of itself, torn between adulthood and childhood. Curtiz’s film emerges as both an exploration of casting in film and a larger critique of the masculine image of the age, essentially approaching an argument that the things we think of as masculine – the very things propping up Curtiz’s previous two films – were really dangerous and childish after all.

However, what Curtiz does with Cagney is merely one way in which he subverts the neutered “studio director” image by using it to subtly transform his films into quiet works of artistry and superb craft. The opening shot, a luscious pan around a working-class distillation of Hell’s Kitchen New York, sees Curtiz beginning with his trademark moving camera pan to set up the density and pageantry of his environments. Better still, it is a quintessential Curtiz intro for all its sublimely artificial quality, creating a neighborhood more like an interlocking machine-work factory than a neighborhood as it exists in reality. The whole feature is shot-through with this sense of hyper-realized theatricality entirely of the Curtiz spirit, proof positive that, although he was a studio director more invested in bringing stories to light in all tones and moods than in redefining the medium, he had a specific way about him as a director. It wasn’t quite that of an auteur; we don’t witness that sense of personal challenge and pulse in all of his films. But it was undeniably an aura of perfected, careful craft, a sense of how he as a filmmaker understood mood and tone through personal proclivities married to a lean, efficient filmmaking machine.

This functional air allows his films a clockwork quality that keeps them from ever losing themselves to unnecessary exploration; everything is in service of the specifics of the tale, subsuming themselves and venturing into theme and character like fully functional gears recently scrubbed clean to whistle and purr with expediency and purpose. Curtiz uses that very lean, terse quality to explore the lives of terse, functional people just trying to get through another day, people who don’t know the pleasures of great schooling or great art but simply strive to exist functionally and directly He makes a film for his characters, in other words, perfectly marrying form and material and humbly elevating his characters in doing so. He attains a primal, elegant simplicity in his act of giving “work-a-day” the best name in the world.

This is all very much a Curtiz film, in the sense that the director adapts his style to fit the needs of his characters, of his story, and of his themes (such as the way imprisonment and harsh punishment ultimately drive Sullivan to a life of crime, with the film eventually emerging as a shockingly complex, tragic, existential prison of boxed-in thoughts on how to tackle institutionalized crime that is not even within spitting distance of an easy answer). Right up until the climactic gun-fight played like an expressionist battle of light and darkness with men wielding guns like rattlesnakes, and still afterword in one of the great sweaty, luminous gut-punch endings in all of cinema, Angels is nothing but a slice of achingly human, near-perfect craft. So, yeah, Curtiz doesn’t have that singularity of idiosyncratic drives pushing him to deconstructive, destructively personal heights. He’s no anti-tentpole outlaw wolf of an auteur hiding in the sheep’s clothing of corporate Hollywood cinema. But with Hollywood craft of this magnitude and careful precision, where the entirety of the film bottles up themes and unleashes them in a final minute of unspeakable majesty, who cares about auteur theory? Great artists come and go, but Angels with Dirty Faces will always be there, ever-prowling in the dark hearts of humankind.

If Angels with Dirty Faces ultimately is a proto-noir, it is also a film about the noir while the genre was still lurking in the womb. It sees American genre cinema petering right between the gangster pic of the 1930s and the outright chiaroscuro nightmare that was the noir of the 1940s, and the urge that drives the film is a pulsing hope that cinema wouldn’t descend to that level of outright nightmare forever tempting the medium. Angels with Dirty Faces is a film that preemptively addresses the conscience of the noir, hoping desperately that the noir wouldn’t need to exist, hoping that the cinema could be saved from having to cope with humanity’s worst nightmares still to come in the dark days of WWII, arguably the world event that birthed the existence of the noir to begin with.  If that genre – coping with the onset of WWII –saw film accept the horrible state of the world at its grisliest, Angels will always be there still hoping, still praying that it never had to come to the noir at all.

Score: 10/10

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