Angels with Dirty Faces Film Review
Madden 1 Sarah Madden 18 November 2012 Film Review: Angels with Dirty Faces, USA 1938 The film I have chosen to review and analyse under the theoretical frame Genre is Angels with Dirty Faces, a gangster film directed by Michael Curtiz starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. In Andrew Tudor’s book “Theories of Film”, he argued that genre is “what we collectively believe it to be”. I believe that when Tudor says “we” he means the audience.
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Audiences have an expectation of what they assume a film to be like and this is down to genre.
According to Jill Nelmes, “Genre is a fundamental means by which we communicate”. Characters, setting and events are made predictable to assist the audience in fulfilling their expectations. The study of Iconography also has a lot to do regarding genre and how such things like props, costumes and settings can tell the audience what genre a film is supposed to be in. When films are placed in certain genres, recurring events and characters are expected.
The likes of Al Capone and James Cagney were recurring actors on contract used for the gangster genre in the Hollywood Studio System around the 1930s and this entertained the audiences as they knew what to expect from their idealised actors from the roles they played. Angels with Dirty Faces epitomises the gangster genre during the 1930s. Made in 1938, the Michael Curtiz film followed rules and conventions that were expected of the genre around that time. The gangster film emerged from the Great Depression and the First World War, as gangsters of America, and more precisely New York began to “run” urban cities.
In “A World History of Film”, Robert Sklar wrote: “These [Gangster] films responded to the changes in urban crime as a result of the post-World War 1 amendment to the United States Constitution prohibiting the manufacture, distribution, or sale of alcoholic beverages. Prohibition fostered powerful criminal organizations that supplied illegal liquor, their highly publicized exploits found their way into films in the later 1920s. ” Madden 2 There is an obvious question regarding gangster films about whether they suppress criminality or encourage it.
In Angels with Dirty Faces, we see how the gangster lifestyle is having a bad effect on the youths, but how the main gangster, Rocky Sullivan, is punished in the end for his rebellion against the law. In his review of the film, Jeremiah Kipp wrote: “It begs the question of how much the gangster movie star persona affects our youth. ” The film fits the genre it is categorised in as it follows the conventions of other gangster films. It is set in the slums of New York City where the Dead End Kids grow up and where Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly grew up.
There is a loyalty present between Sullivan and Connolly that goes back to when they were delinquent children, although Connolly betters his life by joining the priesthood, whereas Sullivan spends his childhood in the society for juvenile delinquents and much of his life in prison. Connolly is coined as the hero in this story and he follows the characteristics of the hero in Schatz’ “Genres of Order”, whereby Schatz lists the general characteristics related to the heroic figure in the gangster and also western genres.
The hero, Schatz describes, is male dominant, located in a contested space usually unstable, surrounded by externalised conflict expressed through violence and takes it upon himself to resolve the problems and eliminate the villain, usually leading to the death of the villain. Connolly possesses all of these traits as he is indeed male, the location is in the slums of the city, he is surrounded by figures like Sullivan who use violence as a solution and he, being old friends with Sullivan, tries to stop him on his own, without police assistance, as we see in the final scenes of the film.
This shows how characters in a certain type of film genre can help define that genre as they follow similar characteristics. Another aspect common within the gangster genre and present within Angels with Dirty Faces, is the rise and fall of the gangster, which we see from when Sullivan is released from prison at the start to when he is executed at the end. The message in almost all of the gangster films is that crime doesn’t pay, which is shown by the demise of the gangster at the end. Films within the gangster genre also follow certain themes such as Betrayal, Self-destruction and Loyalty.
We can see these themes emerging in Curtiz’ film as Connolly betrays Sullivan, for the benefit of the Dead End Kids, by giving information to the newspapers and police and going public in a bid to stop the crime in the city, starting with Sullivan. The theme of Self-destruction is also evident as Sullivan does no favours for himself by rebelling against the law and by shooting at the police. Madden 3 Sullivan continually makes bad choices which end up in his own self-destruction as he is eventually caught and punished for his actions.
The theme of Loyalty is also introduced in gangster films, usually with the gangster mobs being loyal to one another, but in Angels with Dirty Faces, we see Sullivan’s loyalty to Connolly. Sullivan respects Connolly and shows this at the end of the film when Connolly asks Sullivan to be a coward at the time of his death, so as not to be a hero to the Dead End Kids, which Sullivan reluctantly does. The study of Iconography ties in with the defining of genre as an audience can tell the type of genre a film is within the opening sequence, looking at clothing, props, music and settings.
The visual signifiers of a gangster film include weapons such as guns; the setting being usually in a big city, smart clothing on the successful, superior gangsters and shabby clothing on the younger figures living in a gangster lifestyle. The visual signifiers of Angels with Dirty Faces which helped determine it was a gangster film was the enclosed urban city setting, the troublesome youths stealing from a cargo train and the fast and anticipating music when they are running from the police, followed by the downbeat, ominous tone of music when one of the youths are caught.
The verbal signifiers also helps one determine the genre of a film, as the dialogue and language used can indicate the film. The way the two young boys speak, along with how they are dressed, shows their upbringing in an unprivileged, urban lifestyle. The first shot shows a newspaper headline, which reads “Harding nominated for President” reveals to the audience that the film was set in 1921. The film shows many front page newspaper close-ups throughout, which helps the audience follow what is going on without having to show a clip-by-clip action.
Angels with Dirty Faces follows the pattern of other gangster genre films by the execution of Sullivan at the end, showing the rise and fall of the gangster. This portrays a message to the audience that the gangster never wins. For morality purposes, the gangster cannot be seen as glorified and must always be seen to be defeated or killed in order to protect society. In his article, “Teaching through Genre”, Tom Ryall says that “Genres may be defined as patterns/forms/styles/structures which transcend individual films, and which supervise both their construction by the film maker, and their reading by an audience.
Madden 4 Ryall is saying that although films are made individually, they follow some patterns or structures which categorises them into certain types of genre. The gangster film follows certain aspects regarding iconography, setting, events etc. which make it fall into the gangster genre. Angels with Dirty Faces follows some of the forms and structures of other gangster films such as the use of weapons, the violence, the slick clothing of the higher gangsters and the death of the gangster at the end which all show why it locates itself in the Gangster genre.
Iconography is also used when defining genre as it helps an audience fulfil their expectations. Madden 5 Works Cited Angels with Dirty Faces. Dir. Michael Curtiz. Perf. James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart. Warner Bros, 1938. DVD. Sklar, Robert. A World History of Film. Ed. Katherine Rangoon Doyle. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. , 2002. Print. Hollows, Joanne, and Mark Jancovich, eds. Approaches to Popular Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995. Print.
Nelmes, Jill, ed. An Introduction to Film Studies. 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print. Kipp, Jeremiah. “Angels with Dirty Faces”. Rev. of Angels with Dirty Faces, dir. Michael Curtiz. Slant Magazine Online: 2 Feb. 2005. Web. 17 Nov. 2012. Tudor, Andrew. Theories of Film. New York: Viking Adult, 1974. Print. Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. New York, N. Y. : McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages, 1981. Print.