Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5.
USA, 1938. Warner Bros.. Screenplay by John Wexley, Warren Duff, based on a story by Rowland Brown. Cinematography by Sol Polito. Produced by Samuel Bischoff. Music by Max Steiner. Production Design by Robert M. Haas. Costume Design by Orry-Kelly. Film Editing by Owen Marks. Academy Awards 1938.
James Cagney solidified the stardom he gained in The Public Enemy with this terrific crime drama, as much a testament to his talent as director Michael Curtiz’s in their ability to make a familiar story seem brand new. The buddies-gone-awry plot is put into action yet again, as childhood friends grow up in separate directions, one of them a successful hood (Cagney) and the other a priest (Pat O’Brien). O’Brien is father figure to the grimy neighbourhood kids, who all come from rough backgrounds and are headed for the crime-breeding juvenile detention centres that made Cagney who he is, but his attempts to set the kids on the straight and narrow are constantly thwarted by Cagney’s natural charisma. The tough guy’s big-shot style is an inspiration to the urchins from poor backgrounds who see makeshift family values in the protection he offers them and not the path to destruction. Humphrey Bogart has a great supporting role as the mobster for whom Cagney went down and who is forced to hold up his end of the deal when our star reveals that he can anticipate every double-cross in the book. No ingenuity of story here, but Curtiz directs with such terrific vigour and energy that the whole thing feels like it’s never been done before, plus the atmosphere of the grimy urban underbelly works beautifully despite being obviously shot on a Hollywood set. An attempt at a little side romance with Ann Sheridan fails, and the closing scenes are pure Hollywood moralizing to please the censors, but these don’t detract from the film’s best qualities one bit.