Monday, September 21, 2015

Angels With Dirty Faces

(Michael Curtiz, USA, 1938)

An oddly mixed bag.  Curtiz's achievement is the orchestration of interplay between Cagney's character and the streetwise orphans who revere him.  There's a raw vitality to these scenes, and beyond that, Cagney's character itself - overflowing with volcanic intensity and charm, which balances, threateningly and thrillingly, always on the edge of evil - is enough to recommend the film.  It's suggested that quite by chance, Cagney's swagger acts as a civilizing function for the boys, channeling their anarchic power towards order, while forcing himself to behave as the mature adult.  These strangely amusing scenes, bursting with colorful slang and punctuated with slaps, kicks, and punches that serve as a secondary language, point towards a complex and humane vision that Curtiz never realizes.  The film eventually morphs into a hollowly pious moral tale, spoiling its promise.  The final scenes are meant to be a dramatic reversal, but it comes off as feeble moralizing, an ostentatious pitch for Christian street cred.  Today, the film would depict Cagney's rehabilitation as a good citizen; in 1938, he had to get sent to the chair, with his electrocution as an occasion for moral uplift. 

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