It's always nice to have some movies out there you know will be good. After being completely impressed by White Heat, I knew I could dole other James Cagney classics out for when I needed a sure-fire hit. And this second Cagney movie I watched did not disappoint, but managed to impress in a different way.
In this film Cagney stars with Pat O'Brien, with Humphrey Bogart and Anne Sheridan. We open with a pan around a busy street, then close in on two boys hanging on a fire escape. They have a brief flirtation with Laury, local pretty girl. Then we join the boys again in their teens, hanging out in some train yards. Rocky Sullivan--the one who will grow into Cagney--wants to break open one of the cars and steal what's inside. His friend Jerry protests, but Rocky says "What we don't take we ain't got," and they break in. Rocky is caught while Jerry gets away, starting Rocky on a boyhood spent in juvenile detention. When they're older, Jerry comes to visit him, offering to take some of the rap, which Rocky refuses. Now, either they have managed to make Cagney look 17, or they found some young actor who looks exactly like him and does a mean imitation, because you are LOOKING at Cagney as a boy. I even looked at the credits and watched the opening scenes again, and I still can't figure out which it is (answer at the end).
Rocky is eventually sent to real prison, years pass, and finally Rocky is released. We have an identical pan around the same street, years later, in order to show us how the neighborhood has changed. He goes to see Jerry, who is now a priest, and we have a performance by the boys' choir Jerry is teaching, hovering over the theme of boyhood and virtue versus vice. Rocky goes to visit his former lawyer, Bogart as Jim Frasier, who now owns a nightclub. Frasier owes Rocky $10,000, and it's clear from the start that he never intends to pay him. Rocky, smile on his face and that Cagney bulletproof confidence leading the way, tells Frasier that he WILL repay Rocky, and furthermore will give Rocky a job in his nightclub, and whatever criminal rackets he's got going on. A glance at the picture here shows you Bogart doing what sets him apart in these roles: Letting these notes of pure malice play across his face, between spoken lines. Wow, we're going to get some great performances here!
Rocky is pickpocketed by these kids on the street. He easily finds them in he and Jerry's former hideout, makes them return the money and reveals who he is, at which point they all become worshipful. Here is this big mean gangster in their midst, and he admires their plucky criminal spirit as well. He soon has enlisted them as his little minions. He also reconnects with Sheridan as Laury, who is initially contemptuous, but is soon charmed by the gangster. She is present at the church center where Jerry is teaching basketball--to the same boys who are Rocky's minions. Rocky steps in as coach and slaps the boys upside the head and elbows them hard when they don't play fair. We can see that see that the boys immediately take up his example and grow more violent in their game. Laury comments that Rocky really knows how to handle those boys. Jerry has mixed feelings--and we can also tell he has feelings for Laury, although it is never explicitly acknowledged in the film. And now his best friend is moving into his territory and winning away the woman he loves, and the kids he mentors.
SPOILERS > > >
There is soon an attempt on Rocky's life, which we learn was arranged by Frasier. In a clever switcheroo, it appears that Rocky has been killed, which makes it a satisfying shock to Frasier when he shows up in his office. Rocky again displays that almost psychotic confidence that Cagney is such an expert in, and Frasier knows he's Rocky's chump. Rocky breaks into Frasier's safe and steals the money Frasier owes, as well as a bunch of incriminating evidence. One of Frasier's thugs sends Rocky to the cops, exactly what Frasier DOESN'T want, because of the damning evidence Rocky has. He is forced to get Rocky out of prison, and arrange the cops on his payroll to leave him alone, assuring Rocky untouchable status in the neighborhood. he is a celebrity gangster, and the cops can't do a thing about it.
Soon the papers are running an editorial cartoon titled "Who runs our city?" and showing a policeman bowing to Rocky in the street. Jerry's boys don't want to play boring old basketball at the church anymore, and walk out. They want to be delinquents like Rocky. Laury, too, is falling for Rocky and installed into a job Rocky procures for her. Rocky forces himself further into the nightclub, and goes into a meeting with Frasier's boss, Mac, displacing Mac from the chair behind his desk. The gangsters have to go along with Rocky, and there's nothing they can do about it.
Having gotten his money from Frasier, Rocky sends ten thousand to Jerry for his church community center. Jerry needs the money--but can't accept it. He returns it, and they have a philosophical discussion about how if Jerry accepts the money, he will be abetting the very crime that is ruining his community at large, and further corrupt the former good basketball kids, who now revere Rocky as a hero. Jerry says he doesn't want to do this, but if Rocky doesn't do right, he will lead a massive anti-corruption drive, and if it brings him into conflict with Rocky, so be it. They part as friendly enemies.
Jerry searches, and finally finds a newspaper to support him and his anti-crime cause. The public is ignited by his example, and everything is closing in around the gangsters. Laury comes to Jerry and asks him to stop, as it's hurting Rocky, who really is so good inside, and Jerry has to continue his crusade with a heavy heart, as it destroys his chances with the woman he pines for.
Meanwhile Mac and Frazier plot to kill Rocky, although Rocky as usual is several steps ahead of them. He guns down Mac and finally Frazier. But the police are right outside! This leads to an exciting rooftop chase, followed by an exciting standoff in an abandoned building, both gorgeously photographed. Jerry shows up and goes in to talk to Rocky, finally bringing him out. Rocky tries to escape, is caught, and receives the death penalty. We see the impressionable kids following his case in the papers, talking about how brave Rocky is, and will be defiant to the end.
Which brings us to Rocky's execution night. Jerry shows up with ten minutes to spare (he couldn't have stopped by earlier?) and asks Rocky for one final favor: to go out like a wuss, begging for his life, so the gang of kids will give him up as a hero, and return to the church. Rocky says "That's a nice little favor, Jerry. Ask me to crawl on my belly the last thing I do in life." He refuses. Jerry begs once more as they walk to Rocky's execution. Rocky refuses. Then, as Rocky walks toward the electric chair, he starts breaking down and begging for his life. We actually don't see it, we just hear it. Around now you realize what a brilliant device this is, as in a way Jerry has given Rocky permission to let out his true feelings and terror of being killed. A cop on hand remarks on how he's going out like a "yellow-bellied rat," and this opinion is carried by the papers. The kids see the papers, and Jerry confirms that this is how it went. The last thing is he collects the kids and takes them back to his church rec center.
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Another Cagney smash hit! This hails from the time when movies actually had complex stories and even sideline characters had convincing arcs. For example, the way the movie never comes out and SAYS that Jerry has feelings for Laury, we can just TELL, and it adds a great deal of depth to their relationship. And although you can plainly see how this is constructed, morality vs immorality, etc., it still WORKS. Although you can see exactly what the ending is doing and it all may sound a bit contrived by now, I was still a crying basket case and totally moved by the whole thing.
So I did a little research and learned that the guy who plays the younger Cagney is in fact another person, Frankie Burke. He was known among his friends for his Cagney imitation, and made various tries to meet Cagney and show him. Finally he did, the actor was impressed, and it led to this role. IN other news, it turns out Cagney and Pat O'Brien were good friends in real life, and made a total of nine movies together. O'Brien was primarily known as another movie tough guy until this role, which opened up his range... and afterward he had many roles... as sensitive priests.
Anyway, there ya go... if you want to watch a compelling early crime classic, this is a great one. Also great for watching with parents (or grandparents) and kids. I don't see why they don't remake this right now, although it did have a few remakes, one with Robert DeNiro. This movie also had a sequel starring only Ann Sheridan and some of the kids, called, hilariously, The Angels Wash Their Faces.
Yes, it's a solid old-timey crime film that is still quite effective.