Thursday, July 26, 2007

Uncovering the Author: Michael Curtiz's Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

"Perhaps more than any other director, Curtiz reflected the strengths and weaknesses of the studio system in Hollywood... The director's one enduring masterpiece is, of course, Casablanca, the happiest of happy accidents, and the most decisive exception to the auteur theory."

-Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968

As with so many of his entries in The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris' account of Michael Curtiz's oeuvre has become the received wisdom among his auteurist followers, myself included. For Sarris, the Vasari of the classical Hollywood cinema, the "Lightly Likable" Curtiz - the author's classification for "talented but uneven directors with the saving grace of unpretentiousness" - was among "the most amiable of Warner's technicians faithfully [serving] the studio's contract players." A quick survey of his best-known, mid-career works would seem to reflect Sarris' assessment: whether it is his work with Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, co-directed by William Keighley); with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942); or with Joan Crawford in her Academy Award-winning Mildred Pierce (1945) performance, in each we seem to see the director's personality superseded by that of his stars. (One might add Yankee Doodle Dandy [1942] as decisive evidence to this end, as Sarris has, though I cannot corroborate the point having never seen this acknowledged "classic," in spite of my increasing fondness for its star, Mr. James Cagney.)

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), starring Cagney, Pat O' Brien and Bogart, is another film in this tradition, coupling Curtiz's own celebrated direction of actors with one of the studio's "steady output of crime dramas and gangster films with James Cagney," around which the "Warner's style in the 1930s... coalesced" (Thomas Schatz, The Oxford History of World Cinema, 227). In other words, Angels with Dirty Faces is the Warner's studio picture par excellence, even if it represents a late entry into the gangster film cycle that reached its peak in the early 1930s (as for instance in William A. Wellman's superlative Cagney vehicle Public Enemy [1931] or Howard Hawks' superior, Caddo Company-produced Scarface [1932], which rates as one of the decade's finest films in any genre).

So what then is there to say about Angels with Dirty Faces apart from its easy assignment among Warner's products of the time? Is its significance, assuming perhaps wrongly that there is one, its ordinariness, or more charitably its representative facility? Curtiz's film commences with a crane shot, opening on a newspaper headline that places the film's start in 1920, before it begins to move across a crowded tenement, which IMDb identifies as Hell's Kitchen (though it might have just as easily been the Lower East Side, given its similarity to the urban landscapes of George Bellows). In this circling, opening camera movement, the set itself is very much the point, as is the narrative world that it is seeking to represent. Curtiz's world is familiar, perhaps as recognizable as his Casablanca, though it is every bit as teeming with artifice as does his better-known, subsequent pic.

After a single cut, we are introduced to a pair of rather unkempt young men who harass a group of girls as they cross below their fire escape platform. Suffice it to say that the former pair will grow into Cagney and O' Brien, the first of whom becomes a gangster after moving into and out of a series of reform homes throughout his adolescence, and the latter later emerges as a Catholic priest, who reunites with his childhood chum after fifteen years (making Angels with Dirty Faces roughly contemporary by the end of the film).

While various other plot machinations introduce Bogart as Cagney's underworld attorney, George Bancroft as Cagney and Bogart's co-conspirator and Ann Sheridan as Cagney's love interest - not surprisingly she was one of the aforementioned victims of harassment - the core of Curtiz's narrative remains centered around Cagney and O' Brien, and particularly their struggle for the souls of "The Dead End Kids," not that is that Cagney actively endeavours to corrupt the young men; in fact, he uses his influence with the young would-be hoods to get them into O' Brien's gym for one of his buddy priest's basketball games. Ensuing is an extraordinarily long sequence in which we see the young men slowly - and admittedly, unevenly - purged of their violence during a very rough game of round ball, of which mobster Cagney ultimately officiates. Unlike in the NBA of our own time, however, Cagney fairly records their offenses, leading the young men to plead for a re-match.

In truth, Cagney's own road to redemption is itself every bit as uneven, though it is worth noting that his detour through the underworld commences after Bogart and Bancroft's unsuccessful assassination attempt on the film's first lead. In the end, (partial spoiler coming, though if it is at all a surprise, you are probably not terribly familiar with Hollywood filmmaking of the period) Cagney is redeemed, though it takes a final act immediately prior to his execution to secure this redemption. As such, Curtiz externalizes his lead's salvation, removing it from the realm of the spiritual and translating it into a recognizably cinematic form: that of action. Likewise, Angels with Dirty Faces reaffirms its social message at this same juncture, which is itself cardinal to Curtiz's narrative where his priest initiates a reform movement on his own. Ultimately, Cagney is compelled to act for the betterment of society, rather than persisting in his own self-interest, which we might say is the same moral of Casablanca. However, unlike the later film, Cagney's good work is quickly followed by the execution that is dictated by his crimes.

Even so, it is perhaps less in the director's clearly discernible message than in the visual style that Angels with Dirty Faces shares with Casablanca, where Curtiz's imprint is most evident (importantly, the two pictures share neither the same screenwriters nor the same directors of photography; Curtiz, Bogart and composer Max Steiner are the most conspicuous constants). In the earlier, as in the later film, Curtiz again combines exotic (at least for the middle class, American viewer), detailed sets with sparer backdrops that alternately highlight the film's studio genesis. Of course, the occurrence of the latter is not an intrusion of Brechtian theatrics but rather proof that sometimes the set's the point of the mise-en-scène and sometimes its not.

A more intentioned element of the director's technique is the film's mobile camera work, which follows Cagney and company through art director Robert M. Haas' pregnant slums, dank hideouts and glittering night spots. Curtiz and cinematographer Sal Polito's compositions achieve a dynamism both through this mobility and also in their selection of striking angles, and in particular, overheads, as when we see Cagney spying (from an upper floor) on the police who have infiltrated his place of residence. In this regard it is possible to see the immediate, Germanic visual tradition that Gregg Toland perfected in the subsequent years - most spectacularly of course in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) - though without the benefits of the famed lenser's deep focus photography. Distinctly, Curtiz and Polito combine sharply focused middle grounds with either fore or backgrounds that do not share its resolution (a telling instance occurs where we see one of the 'Dead End Kids' playing pool with an out-of-focus solid closest to the camera). Significantly, this same pre-Toland cinematography dominates in Casablanca as well, which, for whatever its contemporary political resonance, looks very much like a product of the previous decade. As with the latter film, likewise, Curtiz and Polito show a predilection for filming spaces filled with smoke or gas, as for instance in the conventional climactic shootout, which seems to prefigure Casablanca's indelible final image.

Still, these are dynamic works, not only for Curtiz's mobile camera and selection of baroque angles, but particularly for his editing technique that pushes forward his brisk narratives. Uniquely striking are Curtiz and editor Owen Marks' montage sequences covering extended durations, as with a series of documents that comprise Cagney's adolescent and adult criminal record early in the film or the the Dead End Kids' spectatorship of his trial during the film's culminating act. In sequences likes these, Curtiz and Marks utilize a series of stylized wipes introducing an additional level of dynamism to Angels with Dirty Faces. In fact, it is Curtiz's faculty for storytelling, and more accurately, for creating works of entertainment that may be the most conspicuous sign of his artistry: if The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces, Casablanca and Mildred Pierce share anything, it is that they are foremost first-class entertainments. And as it is today, to be entertaining is no minor accomplishment, just as being 'Lightly Likable' is no small success.

Perhaps then Sarris' framework is not quite as foreign to Curtiz's aesthetic as it may at first appear. Regardless, auteurism, it is important to remember, is first a system of classification. As a theory, it exists because it allows us to conceptualize, catalog, and finally choose between and among larger bodies of works. An exception here and there doesn't doom the theory - which is fundamentally pragmatic - especially that is when it is no exception at all. In other words, Sarris may have spoken too soon.

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