#115. Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

I watched Angles with Dirty Faces on the eve of Mother’s Day, shortly before going to dinner with my mom and just after calling out from work for the night, and even though I loved the movie, might even rank it among my ten favorite from the List so far, I wans’t able to get lost in it on account of some stuff my manager had said to me on the phone, just beforehand, about how my excuse for calling out of work (i.e. dinner with family) was unacceptable. Which, normally, yes. That’s not a valid excuse. But circumstances were different here. Tomorrow was Mother’s Day, and I’d be working from open until shortly before close. He also said – and I’m not sure why this stayed with me – “I just don’t see the rationale for how this sort of excuse is OK. This isn’t good.” There’s a long story I could put down in my defense on this front, about the lengths I went to alert them to the fact that I wouldn’t be available that night, including the $25 bribe I offered to literally all of my colleagues on the scheduling platform in hopes that somebody would take the shift, but the long and the short of it is that I didn’t do anything terribly wrong. I know that. The following day, Mother’s Day, is the busiest of the year. I was scheduled to work a twelve-hour shift, with no time-and-a-half holiday consideration or whatever. I’d be there more than half the day for $9 an hour, no tips, and just a 30-minute break – which they had the temerity to discourage, in a roundabout way, by telling us each, when the time came, “You can go on your break now, if you feel like you need it.” Surely they could have cut the guilt trip for my calling out the night before. I have a mom, can’t see her on Mother’s Day because of the restaurant’s sweatshop holiday employment practices, gimme a fucking break.

Not gonna name the restaurant, cuz that’d be indiscreet.

Anyway. The manager was cold and scowling with me all through the Mother’s Day shift. Gave me snarlesome glances, disgusted. And, in the course of those dozen chaotic hours of the Mother’s Day shift, we received, as guests, two women that I know from college who don’t really like me. One dislikes me cuz we dated and the other because we didn’t. Then I saw a girl named Sam with whom I went to high school and who remains as traffic-stoppingly beautiful as she was then. High school royalty. We never really spoke to each other back then but I could see that she recognized me when she came into the restaurant and saw me cleaning windows.

So while I didn’t exactly lapse into self-loathing right away, I have spent the last twenty-four hours since that epic shift thinking about the number of people in my life who genuinely dislike me (and with good reason) and about those people who probably just look down on me. It’s a Venn Diagram. The overlap is heavy. I’m wondering: is this normal? Should I have so many people actively disliking me at 26?

James Cagney’s character in Angles with Dirty Faces is a menacing gangster (though he’s a softy with the street kids who idolize him) who bullies people, blackmails them, beats them – he walks around, like every leading man in these early gangster pictures, knowing that there’s a ton of people in this town who’d love the opportunity to hurt him, kill him, see his life go up in flames. And he’s totally at peace with it.

Meanwhile I can barely function at work when I know that three of the 400 people in attendance dislike me.

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But I seriously love this movie. Apart from one unendurably long basketball scene, wherein a bunch of white kids embarrass themselves for the camera, every minute of it is a delight. I definitely got off on the wrong foot with James Cagney in Public Enemy, which I still don’t like, but seeing his range as an actor in some of these later roles, from The Roaring Twenties (a terrific gangster movie that, astonishingly, is not on the List) and Footlight Parade, I’m really coming to enjoy his presence on screen, his voice and walk and chin-tucked smarm. Love it. Humphrey Bogart is great here, too, playing a cowardly lawyer whose own pathetic self-interest is so much at odds with the tough and principled guy of Casablanca or High Sierra or To Have and Have Not. Another cool touch: George Bancroft, who played our troublesome hero in Josef von Sternberg’s silent Docks of New York, appears in Angles as a crime boss. It was such a strange delight to hear his voice.

For some reason I didn’t like James McBride. He plays a pastor here, the childhood friend of Cagney’s character, and it’s from their ensuing magnanimity as adults, despite the polar opposite paths they’ve pursued in life, that the movie reaps its (underexplored) philosophical edge.

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It’s one of those movies that edges a toe over the line of greatness, just barely, and much as you love it you can’t help but see some places where it could be improved. Nonetheless: terrific movie. Highly recommended.


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