A profoundly Catholic movie, Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) is usually not perceived as such. The tale of two slum kids, Jerry Connolly, Pat O’Brien, and Rocky Sullivan, James Cagney, who attempt to steal fountain pens from a train. Sullivan, who can’t run as fast as his friend, is caught after the robbery. Connolly wants to share in the blame for the theft, but Sullivan tells him not to be a sucker and takes all the blame. Sentenced to a brutal reform school he embarks on a life of crime while his friend becomes a priest, assigned to the same slum parish which he and Sullivan attended as boys.
The priest and the gangster renew their friendship with Sullivan quickly becoming the idol of the slum boys that Connolly is trying to keep from a life of crime. Connolly embarks on a crusade against the local gangsters, including Sullivan. Sullivan murders his partner Jim Frazier, Humphrey Bogart, and Mac Keefer, George Bancroft, to save Connelly who they were planning to have killed to stop his anti-crime crusade.
Sullivan, who tells the authorities all he knows about the local criminal operations, is tried for these murders and sentenced to death.
The ending of the film is a powerful look at courage and redemption:
Father Jerry: We haven’t got a lot of time.
I want to ask one last favor.
Rocky: There’s not much left that I can do, kid.
Father Jerry: Yes, there is, Rocky.
Perhaps more than you could do
under any other circumstances.
If you have the courage for it,
and I know you have.
Rocky: Walking in there?
That’s not gonna take much.
Father Jerry: I know that, Rocky.
Rocky: It’s like a barber chair.
They’re gonna ask, “Anything to say?”
I’ll say, “Sure, give me a haircut, a shave
and one of those new electric massages.”
Father Jerry: But you’re not afraid, Rocky?
Rocky: No. They’d like me to be.
But I’m afraid I can’t oblige them, kid.
You know, Jerry, I think to be afraid,
you gotta have a heart.
I don’t think I got one.
I had that cut out of me a long time ago.
Rocky: Suppose I asked you to have the heart, huh?
To be scared.
Rocky: What do you mean?
Father Jerry: Suppose the guards dragged you out of here
screaming for mercy. Suppose you went to the chair yellow.
Say, what’s the matter with you?
You’ve been worrying about my courage.
Father Jerry: I know that.
This is a different kind of courage,
The kind that’s…
Well, it’s born in heaven.
Not the courage of heroics and bravado.
The kind that you and I
and God know about.
Rocky: I don’t know what you mean.
Father Jerry: Look, Rocky, just before I came up here,
the boys saw me off on the train.
Soapy and several of the others.
You can well imagine what they told me.
“Father, tell Rocky to show the world
what he’s made of.
Tell him not to be afraid…
…and to go out laughing…”
Rocky: Well, what do you want?
I’m not gonna let them down.
Father Jerry: That’s what I want you to do.
I want you to let them down.
See, you’ve been a hero to these kids and
hundreds of others, all through your life.
Now you’re gonna be a glorified hero
in death, and I want to prevent that, Rocky.
They’ve gotta despise your memory.
They’ve got to be ashamed of you.
Rocky: You’re asking me to pull an act, turn yellow
so those kids will think I’m no-good?
You’re asking me to throw away the only
thing I got left that they can’t take away.
To give those newspapers a chance to say,
“Another rat turned yellow.”
Father Jerry: You and I will know you’re not.
Rocky: You ask a nice little favor, Jerry.
Asking me to crawl on my belly
the last thing I do.
Father Jerry: I know what I’m asking.
The reason I’m asking is because
being kids together gave me the idea…
…that you might like to
join hands with me…
…and save some of those other boys
from ending up here.
Rocky: You’re asking too much.
You wanna help those kids…
…figure out some other way.
Father Jerry: It’s impossible to do it without your help.
I can’t reach all of those boys.
Thousands of hero-worshiping kids
all over the country.
Rocky: Don’t give me that humanity stuff again.
I had enough in the courtroom.
Told everything. Named names.
Told the whole mess.
What more do you want?
Father Jerry: What I’ve always wanted, Rocky.
Straighten yourself out with God.
Outside of that,
I can’t ask for anything else.
Rocky: Well, don’t!
Warden: It’s time, Rocky. Are you ready?
You figure on going in with me?
Father Jerry: I’d like to, Rocky. That is, if…
Warden: You can if you wish. Do you mind, Father?
Father Jerry: Certainly not.
Rocky: That’s better. Be kind of lonesome
going down that last mile.
Promise me something.
Promise me you won’t let me
hear you pray.
Father Jerry: I promise you won’t hear me.
Rocky: Get away from me, screw,
or I’ll bust your face in.
Guard: It’ll be the last face you see, big shot,
laughing at you.
Rocky: Don’t get near me now.
I’ll spit in your eye.
Warden: Herbert, stand back.
Thompson, take care of him.
Rocky: Lay off.
I don’t need anybody. Come on.
Prisoner: Attaboy, Rocky.
Pick your own company.
Prisoner: So long, Rocky. We won’t be long.
Prsioner: So long, Rocky.
Father Jerry: Rocky, please.
So long, kid.
Father Jerry: Goodbye, Rocky.
May God have mercy on you.
The film has lost none of its power in 77 years. It is a powerful reminder that as long as life remains, redemption is ever at hand if we only have the courage, and the humility, to seize it. Often redemption begins with love of others, especially involving sacrifice on our part, leading to love of God. This is no accident. Our lives are meant to be led showing both love of our neighbors and our God, and one love often leads to the other, so long as such love is not a disguise for love of self. In true love we lose ourselves, only to find our better selves, which is what Rocky Sullivan did with his last minute of life. If anyone has not yet seen this classic, they should remedy this omission as soon as possible.