—A Must See Cagney Film—
Your Bogie Film Fix:
Director: Michael Curtiz
Two childhood friends (James Cagney and Pat O’Brien) grow up and go down very different paths after a run-in with the police. One becomes a gangster, and the other a priest.
What I Thought
This film was one of the biggest gaps in my Bogart / Classic Film knowledge. I’ve read a lot about it, had it recommended numerous times, and have even come close to actually viewing it on occasion, but this was the first that time I’ve seen it in its entirety.
Did it live up to the hype? For the first hour – no. Not that I thought it was bad, because it’s actually very good. Cagney is amazing, and my appreciation for him continues to grow. It’s the first Pat O’Brien film I’ve seen so far where I thought that he really got to play a 3-dimensional character, and now I’m starting to understand what all the fuss is about. Plus, I got a little dose of Ann Sheridan, which is always a good thing!
I just didn’t think it was as good as everyone had told me. Up until the last fifteen minutes of the film I was ready to rank this one just below The Roaring Twenties. The script is good, but not great. Director Michael Curtiz does a fine job, but it’s a far cry from Casablanca. And then there’s the fact that Bogart is hardly in the film despite high billing and lots of presence in the advertising.
Then I got to the ending . . . wow.
Without giving anything away (in case you’re also behind on seeing this film), Cagney’s final scene is so powerful that I’m still reeling from it two days after watching the film. The movie certainly didn’t have to end that way. It could have gone with a more audience-friendly finish. Yet Curtiz, Cagney, and O’Brien take what was a good film and elevate it to great with just the last fifteen minutes.
I’ll save my praise for Cagney until later in this post, but if you aren’t haunted by his final moments in this film (where we see nothing but Cagney’s hands!), then you might want to double check whether or not you have a soul. Supposedly Cagney played his final scene with enough ambiguity that the audience wouldn’t know exactly why he was saying what he was saying. Was it honest? Was it a show for his friend and for the press? The choice to play it that way was genius, and makes it my favorite moment of any film of Cagney’s I’ve seen.
The Bogart Factor
If you’re here for a Bogart fix, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. The man is barely in it, and when he is it’s a horribly small and two-dimensional lawyer turned gangster character.
Bogart plays James Frazier, a lawyer who goes into business for himself as a racketeer after he swipes a hundred thousand dollars off of Cagney after Cagney is sentenced to a long prison stint. Most of the role is spent sniveling into a phone, or sniveling to his partner in crime (George Bancroft), or just plain sniveling for his life from Cagney.
Bogart’s trying, but there’s literally nothing here to work with. Why have two crooks in Bogart and Bancroft? Why not just consolidate them into one role and give it a little more meat? It’s probably the biggest shortcoming of the script that we don’t get a better antagonist to work against Cagney’s attempt at creating a new criminal empire.
James Cagney plays Rocky Sullivan, the small time hood who grows up to be a big time criminal. Cagney’s onscreen charisma is off the charts in every starring role that I’ve seen, and perhaps there needs to be a Cagney Film Blog somewhere down the road. He more than capably pulls off an incredible amount of likability from the audience even while we watch him do some pretty lowdown things to his friends and the kids he begins to mentor. Perhaps the gift that I appreciate the most is the fact that you can always see Cagney’s mind racing, as if he’s thinking one or two steps ahead of the current plan, racing his mind to cover all the bases. This is great, great, Cagney. And like I mentioned earlier, his delivery of his final lines is so emotionally painful, it’s a rare thing for a movie from this era to disturb me so deeply.
Pat O’Brien plays Father Jerry Connolly, Cagney’s childhood friend and former fellow hoodlum. After Cagney’s arrested and begins a life of crime, O’Brien’s Father Jerry finds the straight and narrow and dedicates his life to helping juvenile delinquents get a shot at a better life. After several films in which I really wasn’t a fan of O’Brien (China Clipper, San Quentin), I have to say that I was really impressed here. His character had a lot more nuance and subtext than the last two films, and O’Brien made me believe he was a man with a darker past. I admit that I was caught completely off guard when he slugged the patron at the bar for giving him a hard time. It was a realistic moment of fury that helped show the fine balance O’Brien was taking to toe the line between ex-criminal and clergyman.
Ann Sheridan plays Laury Ferguson, and GOOD GRIEF is she underused in this film. After falling in love with her in It All Came True, I was pretty anxious to see her in another leading lady role – but this ain’t it! There’s a few moments of promise at the beginning when she starts a relationship with Cagney, but after that, Sheridan is relegated to occasionally popping up to fret over the men of the film and try not to look out of place even though she has little to do. I’m going to have to keep searching for another great Sheridan role I guess . . .
George Bancroft plays Bogart’s partner in crime, Mac Keefer. There seems to be a little more depth here than what Bogart got to play with, but not much. I liked Bancroft and his team of thugs, but I never really bought that any of them were a real threat to Cagney.
The “Dead End” Kids basically play themselves. They are one of the strongest points of the film, and they all get a little more time to shine than they did in Crime School, as their screen time is divided up a little more evenly and Billy Halop doesn’t take all the good lines. What’s most entertaining to me is that this is apparently the film where Bogart finally got fed up with their bad behavior after they stole some of his pants and lobbed fire crackers at him. (Cagney supposedly smacked Leo Gorcy for adlibbing!) The boys are very charismatic, and add quite a few good moments of levity to the film.
Classic Bogie Moment
Not much to work with here! So I’ll just go with a pic that illustrates how no one could smoke like Bogie could smoke –
The Bottom Line
Even though Bogart gets shortchanged, you need to see this one just for Cagney’s performance!