Leaving aside for a moment its moralistic ending, 'Angels with Dirty Faces' puts me in mind of a Jim Thompson novel. Thompson's stories often peak at what would traditionally constitute a denouement fairly early on, then develop into studies of aftermath. 'Angels with Dirty Faces' conforms to a three-act structure:
Act One is the origin story, in which the juvenile Rocky Sullivan gets in trouble with the law while his pal and fellow delinquent Jerry Connelly gets away. Rather than straightening out in reform school, Rocky becomes hardened; determined to kick against the system. A few stretches in jail make this wise-ass tough-guy wiser and tougher still.
Act Two is the rise and fall of the now adult Rocky (James Cagney). A whirlwind montage of bootlegging, shoot-outs, fast cars and dancing girls sketch in the pleasures and perils of the lifestyle. An abrupt cut to Rocky about to go down for three years emphasises the punishment. But just as Rocky didn't rat out Jerry as a kid, he keeps shtum about his current partner James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), a bent lawyer to whom he entrusts $100k of stolen money with instructions to set himself up in "business" and make contacts.
Act Three is the aftermath part: Rocky gradually uncovering Frazier's duplicity - the lawyer's now in league with old-school hood Mac Keefer (George Bancroft) and both consider Rocky a liability - while lying low in the old neighbourhood where he strikes up a tentative romance with Laury (Ann Sheridan), reacquaints with Jerry (Pat O'Brien) and becomes a mentor to a gang of street kids (the "Dead End" kids) whom Jerry, now a priest, is trying to save from a life of crime.
Director Michael Curtiz powers through Acts One and Two with such energy and economy that they occupy just the first ten minutes. The rest of the film deals with Act Three. Again, Curtiz doesn't waste a frame of film. 'Angels' abounds with incident: there's Keefer's attempt to rub out Rocky; Rocky getting the dirt on Frazier and all his political contacts and turning the tables; a crooked cop who's in Keefer's pocket harrassing Rocky only for Keefer to call him off when he realises how badly Rocky's compromised Frazier. The genre elements are punchy and well-crafted, particularly an assassination attempt in a chemist's store and a climactic shoot-out complete with searchlights, tear gas and tommy guns.
But Curtiz weaves a human story around the gunfights and double-crosses. Rocky's human side is evident in his relationships with Jerry and Laury. Jerry is initially delighted that Rocky takes an interest in the kids (he sees this as the key to Rocky's redemption), but soon begins to worry when these pocket edition gangsters begin slavishly hero-worshipping a real one. And when he implicates them in his entanglements with Frazier and Keefer, getting them to hide the money he's forcibly got back from Frazier, Jerry decides he has to take a stand against his old friend.
It's hard not to feel annoyed at the last-minute subplot the film-makers shoehorn in. We've enjoyed tough-talking gangster schtick, a twisty-turny tale of double-crosses and dangerous deals, and a decent helping of earthy humour (Rocky refereeing at a basketball game, physically beating the kids into playing by the rules, is an inspired blend of archly ironic humour and laugh-out-loud pratfalls) ... and then someone goes and turns on the morality.
Late-in-the-game scenes of Jerry spearheading a public crusade against the criminal underworld and corruption in high places are rushed; not properly developed. Frazier and Keefer seem to sit back and let the groundswell happen before it even occurs to them to have the priest bumped off. But Rocky's still too attached to Jerry to let them go ahead. He's not unlike a Michael Mann protagonist in this respect: even though he's resolved the conflict with Frazier and Keefer, even entering into an uneasy partnership, and even though all are threatened equally by Jerry's crusading, it's Jerry to whom Rocky is most loyal. He doesn't deviate from his code of honour.
Confronted with Keefer's plans to send Jerry "floating down the river", Rocky's determination to protect his friend seals his own fate.
Tried, found guilty and sentenced to death, Rocky whiles away his final hours sneering at the prison warders, talking tough and promising he'll spit in their eye before he goes to the chair. Then Jerry visits him asks him one last favour: die yellow, die like a coward, stop being a hero to the kids. Jerry has almost lost them; he fears for hundreds of others just like them. He begs Rocky not to become a martyr they'll emulate at the cost of ending up on Death Row themselves.
Forget Jerry's morally uplifting final line as he leads the kids symbolically out of the darkness of their basement hideout and up into the light; the most memorable scene has Rocky initially refuse Jerry's request, then gleefully punch out one of the guards before he's lead to the chair. Defiance is written on his face. A tight shot shows Jerry walking by his side, the guards close behind them. During the long walk, Cagney conveys, just by his eyes and the set of his mouth, the struggle going on inside Rocky; the enormity of the decision he finally makes.