The Phoenix Cinema in North Finchley is a lovely old picture palace a short journey away on the Northern Line. On Thursdays they show a Classic Movie at 11:00am; a chance to have an early viewing of one of the great movies that may only have been viewed on the small screen in an appreciative atmosphere. Last Thursday the classic was Angels with Dirty Faces, one of the group of Cagney Movies that form a divine selection. The Roaring Twenties, The Public Enemy, White Heat and Each Dawn I die are the other films that make up Cagney's gangster quintet.
The story of Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Conolly is a morality tale about good and evil and paths taken. Rocky enters the criminal world by way of saving his friend Jerry and inevitably is undone because he saves Jerry, now a priest, from being murdered. Rocky's relationship with a gang of local boys, The Dead End Kids is one of an idol and his admirers. In the scenes between Rocky and the kids we are treated to a charismatic and dynamic Cagney, verbally and physically jousting.
Edmund O'Brien and Humphrey Bogart are also excellent as a kind of Yin and Yang in Rocky's life and an underused Ann Sheridan plays a spirited love interest.
The use of sweeping establishing shots and Newspaper headlines is used effectively at the start of the movie and throughout montage is employed to great effect. Cinematically it has a lot of class and the director Michael Curtiz's work on the film is rather underrated.
The question that remains for any viewer of Angels is that of Cagney's death scene. Sentenced to the electric chair a defiant Rocky turns into a snivelling coward. Is this at the request of Father Jerry in order to dissuade hero worship or does Rocky genuinely lose his resolve? No one knows and that adds to the enigmatic nature of Rocky Sullivan; Kind hearted, humorous yet a cold blooded killer.
Angels with Dirty Faces is part of the anti crime message genre yet shows it's anti hero in a sympathetic light; that of a boy who couldn't run as fast as his friend and therefore doomed to enter the world of crime and never get out alive.