Rocky on the walk to the chair.
September 3, 2007

Angels With Dirty Faces

If I recall the ending of the first Godfather correctly, Michael promises to renounce the glamour of evil. Rocky, in Angels With Dirty Faces, almost perfectly exemplifies this glamour. Cagney, to start with, is a much more appealing and charismatic actor and person than Pat O’Brien. There is an energy and vitality that radiates from Cagney that is missing in most of O’Brien’s performances. Cagney’s character, Rocky, is also more heroic than O’Brien’s character. He takes the fall for the theft of the fountain pens in the film’s opening, encourages Jerry to try and clean up the city, and stops the mob boss and Bogart’s lawyer from implementing a plot to kill Jerry. Ultimately he goes to the chair as a coward, possibly because Jerry asked him to. So Rocky is willing to sacrifice himself for Jerry. Jerry, however, accepts the sacrifice, and even demands that Rocky make sacrifices for him, or for the children.

In Alcestis the nobility of the sacrificial wife is unquestioned, as is Admetus love for her. Herakles, by journeying to the underworld to reclaim Alcestis, joins the list of travelers who are types of Christ. The question, which Euripides doesn’t probe, is what kind of man asks his wife to sacrifice herself for him. This question, in a more general form, echoes even in our day. St. Maximilian Kolbe sacrificed himself for Franciszek Gajowniczek, but despite Gajowniczek’s evident piety and devotion, he still seems less than heroic.

Some years back I wrote a story, “What shall we make of Admetus,” which provides some of the back story for a character in my novel. I haven’t included the story on this site because I don’t think it’s very good. The basic idea was that a person in the same situation as Gajowniczek eventually sacrifices himself to save a young woman.

Rocky makes the first sacrifice by taking the fall for Jerry, and Jerry doesn’t want to accept this at first, but ultimately takes the fruits of Rocky’s sacrifice. Rocky’s heroism ultimately endears him to Laurie, and she appears to succumb to Rocky’s charm and charisma, possibly leaving her position as a social worker to become an habitue of Rocky’s nightclub. So here we have Rocky’s heroism and charisma contributing to his glamour. Jerry, on the other hand, remains strangely passive. He is unable to lure his boys into the recreation hall. When they come into money they prefer to spend it on beer and pool, rather than playing basketball. It is Rocky who is able to enforce the rules of the game, not Jerry.

So we have a passive, uncharismatic, good character, opposed to an active, charismatic, bad character. When Rocky is on his way to the dance hall (execution chamber) his face already seems to be covered with a demonic, hellish glare. Oddly Jerry, who is sharing the same light. seems utterly calm and detached. Rocky ultimately appears to break down, and to die as a coward. Rocky’s cowardice is ambiguous, but if, as one of the commentators on the DVD says, Rocky acts like a coward for Jerry, it is another instance of Rocky’s sacrificing himself for his friend.

That Jerry first accepts, and then asks for these sacrifices renders him morally ambiguous. The film, however, has to end by deglamorizing evil, so Jerry accepts Rocky’s sacrifice, and presents it to the boys as a veritable fact that Rocky was a coward. So within the universe of the film evil is effectively deglamorized, but to the film audience, which is external to that universe, it remains glamourous and appealing.