Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

In director Michael Curtiz' and Warner Bros.' fast-paced, crime melodrama - a financial box-office hit in 1938 that starred three greats - Cagney, O'Brien, and Bogart; later due to its success, there was a sequel: Angels Wash Their Faces (1939):

  • the film's opening sequences (a prologue of sorts) introduced two slum kids from Brooklyn who grew up together - William "Rocky" Sullivan (Frankie Burke as youth) and Jerry Connelly (William Tracey as youth); they followed very different paths in their later lives as a result of an event in 1920 when they were youths - the two were caught by police stealing fountain pens from a railroad freight car, and although Jerry escaped, Rocky was snagged and sentenced to attend reform school
  • as adults, one became courageous, inner-city Catholic parish priest Father Jerry Connelly (Pat O'Brien as adult) in the same neighborhood, while the other became big-time, hardened gangster/convict "Rocky" Sullivan (Oscar-nominated James Cagney as adult)
  • James Cagney delivered a memorable tough guy characterization of "Rocky" - with characteristic mannerisms including jerking/twisting of the neck, shoulder-lifting, swaggering, snarling pugnacity, and lower-lip biting revealing a row of upper teeth
  • over fifteen years later, conflict arose between the two when the pugnacious ex-con Rocky (after serving three years in prison for armed robbery) returned to the neighborhood and was soon being idolized by a group of tough and troubled slum punks (the future 'Dead End Kids') who were being counseled and overseen by the priest
  • Rocky seemed to settle down during a romance with childhood friend Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan), a parish social worker who rented him a room in her boarding house, but was still engaged in a life of crime with gang boss Mac Keefer (George Bancroft) and Keefer's business partner - snarling, crooked, double-crossing gangster lawyer James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart)
  • the daring exploits of Rocky caused the Dead End Kids to idolize him and worship him as a role-model hero, causing Father Jerry immense concern for their emulation of Rocky's criminalized way-of-life, and disregard for the church's wholesome programs
  • Father Jerry was forced to engage in a campaign against the corruptive criminal element (in general) and its damaging effect on the community, and in particular as a means to condemn his boyhood friend
  • as the film was concluding, Keefer and Frazier plotted to murder Father Jerry, but Rocky intervened and gunned down both of his local rivals; during Rocky's murderous shooting of Frazier, he taunted him before shooting him dead in the back when he fled: "You've had your last chance, and you can take this with ya!"; then he escaped to an abandoned warehouse where he also shot and killed an police officer; as a result, Rocky was captured and sentenced to death in the electric chair
  • pre-execution, an unrepentent and defiant Rocky met in his cell with Father Jerry, when Rocky joked about his impending death: "It's like sitting in a barber chair. They're going to ask me, 'You got anything to say?' and I say, 'Sure. Give me a haircut, a shave and a massage - one of those nice new electric massages'" - he also claimed that he wasn't afraid: "You know Jerry, I think in order to be afraid, you've got to have a heart. I don't think I got one. I got it cut out of me a long time ago"
  • Jerry requested a favor from Rocky - to act fearful and cowardly so he wouldn't be regarded by the slum neighborhood boys as a hero, role model, or martyr: "Suppose I asked you to have the be scared... Suppose at the last minute the guards dragged you out here screaming for mercy. Suppose you went to the chair yellow.... This is a different kind of courage, Rocky. The kind that's well, that's born in heaven. Well, not the courage of heroics or bravado. The kind that you and I and God know about...I want you to let them down. You see, you've been a hero to these kids, and hundreds of others, all through your life - and now you're gonna be a glorified hero in death, and I want to prevent that, Rocky. They've got to despise your memory. They've got to be ashamed of you"
  • Rocky was reluctant to humble himself and show fear in the death chamber as a cringing coward pretending to be 'yellow': "You asking me to pull an act, turn yellow, so those kids will think I'm no good...You ask me to throw away the only thing I've got left...You ask me to crawl on my belly - the last thing I do in life...Nothing doing. You're asking too much...You want to help those kids, you got to think about some other way"
Rocky's Death March - "Rocky Dies Yellow"
  • Rocky made a memorable last walk or death march to his execution, and entered into the death chamber, where he broke down and became "yellow" (accompanied by an incredible Max Steiner score), turning into a screaming, snivelling, cowering coward begging not to be killed (seen in silhouette): "Oh, I don't wanna die! Oh, please. I don't wanna die! Oh, please. Don't let me burn. Oh, please. Let go of me. Please..."
  • the next day's news headlines: "ROCKY DIES YELLOW: KILLER COWARD AT END!", were read by the neighborhood kids who couldn't believe Rocky's cowardice, but accepted it; they asked Father Jerry: "Did Rocky die as they said, like a yellow rat?" and Jerry responded with the film's final words: "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"

Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney)

Rocky's Murder of Crooked Gangster-Lawyer James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart)

Rocky's Pre-Execution Meeting with Father Connelly

Jerry's Last Request to His Childhood Friend Rocky


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