The Dead End Kids have dirty faces, all right — but they’re no angels.
Tough-talking young hoods much given to slapping one another’s faces and terrorizing their lower East Side Manhattan neighborhood, they may tolerate sincere, savvy Father Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien) and his efforts to divert them from the dangers of life on the street; but it’s in Fr. Jerry’s boyhood chum, infamous gangster Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney), that the Kids find a mentor and kindred spirit.
Rocky slaps their faces too, but he also teaches them not to terrorize their own neighborhood — not when it’s safer to terrorize other neighborhoods, where it’s easier to disappear afterwards. "You kids got a lot to learn," he tells them, as only Jimmy Cagney can.
Maybe so, but Fr. Jerry doesn’t want Rocky teaching them. The priest has enormous affection for his old friend, who as a boy once took the full rap for a petty theft both boys were involved in, refusing to finger the other culprit. (Two lads named Frankie Burke and William Tracy are well-cast as youthful versions of James Cagney and Pat O’Brien.) Rocky went to reform school and became a criminal; Jerry went free and became a priest. Fr. Jerry is well aware that he owes the whole course of his life, in a sense, to Rocky; but he is also coldly clear-eyed about what his friend has become, and he emphatically does not want the young toughs of his streets following in Rocky’s footsteps.
Yet who can blame the Dead End Kids for wanting to do so? Who’s ultimately more interesting, Pat O’Brien or Jimmy Cagney? Whose performance still brings all sorts of viewers back to this classic Warner Brothers crime story, even those who aren’t much interested in its dated social melodrama or unfashionable moral message?
To be sure, Fr. Jerry is a right enough guy, a man familiar with street life and crime, whose own childhood was much like the Kids’ lives, and who even now isn’t above punching out some mug in a pool hall who taunts the priest over the Kids’ indifference.
But Rocky Sullivan is riveting. His movements are quick and vital, his speech like machine-gun fire, his demeanor sharp and confident. He is all attitude and style. Humphrey Bogart (back from the original Dead End, the film that introduced the boys here known as the Dead End Kids [but later as the Bowery Boys]) is Rocky’s enemy, and we quite understand why he is so nervous and jittery throughout the film. And when Ann Sheridan rebuffs Rocky’s interest in her with a curt retort, and he replies tersely, "You could do worse," it’s easy to feel that, indeed, she could.
In short, the film’s burden is that Rocky is a more compelling character than Fr. Jerry. And Fr. Jerry knows it. He can’t compete with Rocky for the Kids’ attention; and, despite his fondness for the gangster, he resents it. Rocky, who still bears Jerry the same affection that the priest has for him, sympathizes. He’s magnanimous enough to try to drum up interest among his young admirers in the priest’s basketball program, and even referees the game when the Kids prove to need sterner handling than Fr. Jerry can provide. But, as Rocky’s renewed criminal exploits increasingly leave the Kids in awe, Fr. Jerry realizes he’s playing a losing game.
There is something very human and poignant about the way Rocky wants to compartmentalize his life — to be friends with Fr. Jerry and even support his ministry to society on the one hand, while on the other hand tearing down society with his dishonest dealings.
The priest, however, will not compartmentalize; and inevitably the two friends are led into conflict. "What earthly good is it for me to teach that honesty is the best policy when all around they see that dishonesty is a better policy?" the priest demands in a memorable confrontation. As the conflict escalates, both men remain true to character, with inevitable results.
Angels with Dirty Faces is perhaps best known for its famous ending, which I will not reveal in the body of this review (the addendum below discusses the specific events of the film’s climax and their moral ramifications). What I can say here is this: In the end, Rocky is offered an opportunity to do something that would truly help Fr. Connolly and the Dead End Kids. This is meant to be a morally uplifting and redeeming possibility, and on some levels it is. But as the story plays out, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that the proposed good is bound up with a moral wrong in a way that can’t be reconciled with Christian moral tradition. Immoral means are proposed to bring about noble ends. This unfortunate misstep diminishes the film, even if it doesn’t entirely negate its moral message.
There’s a point in the film where Fr. Connolly receives a donation that he knows is stolen money, and he refuses to accept it, insisting that he will not build on "rotten foundations." That’s a principle that’s better than the end of this movie.
Readers who don’t wish to know more about what happens should stop reading now.
Arrested after a dramatic standoff with police, Rocky is sentenced to death, but remains uncowed and defiant. Fr. Jerry, realizing that ongoing media coverage of Rocky’s brave front is only further cementing the gangster’s standing with the Dead End Kids, visits his friend on Death Row and makes a desperate plea: If at the last minute Rocky will make a show of cowardice — if he will plead for mercy and have to be dragged to the electric chair — the boys will be disillusioned and may stop hero-worshipping him.
Furiously affronted, Rocky adamantly refuses, insisting that his pride and courage are all he has left. Fr. Jerry never stops pleading, though, urging him to a higher sort of courage. Still defiant and sullen as the guards come to escort him to his death, Rocky ultimately relents, and, in his last tortured act, gives the priest the headline he wants: "Rocky Dies Yellow."
Stunned by the newspaper’s account of Rocky’s cowardly death, the Dead End Kids turn to Fr. Jerry for confirmation: "Did Rocky die as they said, like a yellow rat?" The priest’s words are the movie’s last: "It’s true, boys. Every word of it. He died like they said. All right, fellas. Let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could."
Christian tradition teaches that direct lying is never morally permissible. Of course, there are important qualifications relating to mental reservations, withholding information, and so forth; but flat untruths are simply unacceptable. God is truth, and Satan is the father of lies; it is never justifiable to use the Devil’s tools in God’s service.
Does Fr. Jerry urge Rocky to lie? Does Rocky lie? Perhaps not. Rocky begs for mercy, but never says in so many words "I’m afraid to die." His intent is to create an impression that will mislead, but that isn’t the same as the lie direct, and there are circumstances in which it can be justifiable. Whether it is in fact justifiable in this particular circumstance is something else again, and beyond the scope of this short addendum.
But about Fr. Jerry’s own words to the Dead End Kids there can be no such subtleties: "It’s true, boys. Every word of it." This, quite simply, is a lie. Rocky died yelling, but not "yellow" as the newspaper averred.
Such a small thing, but the whole climax of the film turns on it, making it hard to ignore. It could easily have been otherwise, without much affecting the substance of the film. What if the paper had been more objective and less interpretive? What if it had simply reported the empirical facts: that Rocky died screaming for mercy and clawing his custodians? Or, granted the newspaper as it was written, what if Fr. Jerry had answered indirectly, saying only, "Boys, he died fighting and screaming for mercy"?
A third alternative: What if Fr. Jerry, pressed by the boys for the truth, had broken down and admitted that Rocky put on a show to dissuade the boys from following in his footsteps? What effect might it have had upon them to learn that their hero’s dying act was an attempt to divert them from a life of crime? Perhaps their very admiration of the man would have led to the sobering realization that if Rocky himself wanted to discourage others from living as he had, perhaps that way of life wasn’t what it seemed to be after all.
The film’s flawed ending doesn’t mean that Christian viewers can’t enjoy it or appreciate its social message. It does mean that, as with most films, Angels with Dirty Faces must be watched critically, with an eye to sifting the good from the bad, remembering that the gospel is always a sign of contradiction, challenging even our best intentions and aspirations.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.