Angels With Dirty Faces: Fake Cowardice, Real Courage and Redemption

Sunday, October 11, AD 2015


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.


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19 Responses to Angels With Dirty Faces: Fake Cowardice, Real Courage and Redemption

  • Good post. As a kid in the late 1950’s in NYC we would watch these old movies and see it live in the streets. Thankfully, I could run just fast enough.

    I think this is an example of the “grace” we may choose to find in everything we encounter/experience,

    I don’t know if it was a written or unwritten rule. In the “good old days” Hollywood movies the bad guys had to be unattractive and had to lose and the heroic, good guys always won. Today, not so much.

  • T Shaw.

    Just goes to show what types of guys run Hollywood…. Bad guys or good guys?
    Money v. Virtue.

  • Just had a thought about Catechism or CCD curricula of these past few decades having not much influence over corruption of innocents. Lying, cheating, and selfishness running rampant could be better prevented by watching, for example, this movie so giving catechists a boost. For quite a time, as a sub for some of this inner city’s reprobates, showing movies was a path to communication – ‘Moonstruck’ being their favorite by the miles and it was , it seems, the family dynamics that won the day.

  • Not so teensy little problem here. Does it dawn on anybody that the priest asked the Cagney character to lie, that is, to commit sin against the Eighth Commandment? One may not do evil that good may come from it. The ends don’t justify the means. That has always been a tenet of Catholic moral theology. WIth movies like this (and the Crosby priest movies, too) Catholic understanding of moral theology is corroded, all in the name of “entertainment”.

  • I just knew that someone would bring that up. No Janet, I do not think that a lie under this circumstance was in any way evil, even assuming that pretending to be afraid when you are not is a lie, which I think is debatable. (How would we then deal with someone pretending to be brave when they are secretly afraid in a wartime situation? Rather than a lie and a sin is that not the epitome of courage and a great virtue?) I think it was a great good deed, attempting to spare boys that admired him from walking their own last miles, that would probably have saved the fictional Rocky Sullivan’s soul from eternal damnation. To understand the complexity of this area when it comes to morality read the post linked below:

  • Bad analogy. Courage truly exists in the face of the natural self-preservation instinct. It’s an act of will not emotion. A person is courageous because he/she decides to be, often in contradiction to their emotions.

    The portrayal of a priest lying, and even asking another to lie, is beyond the pale. I will say this for the Crosby “Fr O’Malley” movies; they did depict the lies backfiring in his face.

  • “Courage truly exists in the face of the natural self-preservation instinct. It’s an act of will not emotion.”

    Will controlling emotion is precisely what Cagney’s character did. Is it any less deceptive to say to an opponent that you will beat him to within an inch of his life if he does not surrender, when you know that if he attacks that you will run, than what Rocky Sullivan did? This type of pettifogging, “I would sooner give Jews up to the SS than tell a lie!”, something no morally sane person would even contemplate, only makes Catholicism look ludicrous. Thank heavens when push came to shove during the War tens of thousands of priests and nuns did engage in deception to save innocent lives.

    During the War many deception operations were engaged in to make the Nazis think that the Allies would land in Calais instead of Normandy. Anyone who says this was morally wrong, or lying to protect people who would be unjustly slain if discovered, I simply refuse to take seriously when it comes to examining moral questions.

    A good examination of the knots this question has produced over the ages due to Augustine and Aquinas:

  • Oh. I loved this movie. I thought the priest knew the inner fear that Cagney’s character felt, and which he had In fact been battling all his life with his bravado.
    That character knew good from evil in his last act. He was afraid although. He denied it. And in kindness the priest helped him find a way to seek the good of others rather than his own….his last act admits the recognition of good / evil. That means repentance and attempt at reparation.
    The priest cared for Cagney character soul as well as the boys. He helped him do good as the last outward act of his express love for others. Love love love this movie and may others by that good Catholic man Jimmy Cagney.

  • Janet Baker.

    Fifteen years working in Memory Care units is gratifying. One of the heart breaking moments for care givers is the lie we tell when a client with Alzheimer’s repeatedly asks the whereabouts of his/her deceased spouse.
    If we tell the truth the client re-lives the moment of the loved ones death. It’s dehumanizing. The agony they go through at that moment is hell. If we lie and tell them she/he is out with family they accept that without the trauma. They forget moments later they were even looking for their spouse.

    Until you experience this you can’t fully appreciate the event.

    Will we suffer for our lies in our industry?
    I don’t worry about the judgement to come and the lies we tell our patient.

    BTW. Family is very appreciative of our lie’s.
    They have been witnesses of that trauma themselves, and rather a lie be told, than place their parent through that Hell, agian.

  • If the character, Rocky Sullivan did not know fear, then, Rocky Sullivan would not have known how to portray fear. George Bancroft was poorly cast and did not portray the gangster kingpin as well as he ought. Bancroft did not come across as a tough guy. Maybe too fat.

  • Janet Baker wrote, “Does it dawn on anybody that the priest asked the Cagney character to lie,..”
    No, there is no lie here, for there is no false statement.
    We may never lie, but, in appropriate cases, we may use evasion, equivocation or mental reservation (which is what this was) in order to mislead. It is no meore lying that wearing a disguise or using a nom de guerre is lying.
    The Salamanca School have wagon-loads of cases of conscience on the subject, many of remarkable ingenuity.

  • “many of remarkable ingenuity.”

    Indeed, and often they make a straight forward lie seem honest in comparison. There is a reason why casuistry has a bad reputation.

  • Donald R McClarey wrote, “often they make a straight forward lie seem honest in comparison.”
    Let us say they perfected the conjurer’s art of misdirection.
    That is why Talleyrand said of the Vatican diplomats of his day, “Watch the juggler’s eyes, not his hands.”

  • The Church’s precise understanding of the boundaries of the 8th Commandment has not been static and likely will continue to develop. Even the Catechism’s summary has meaningfully changed, even in recent years, and certainly orthodox theologians continue to debate those boundaries. My own view is that a moral obsession with Cagney’s selfless “lie” signals a flirtation with scrupulosity.

  • Looking back at my reactions (over the years) to the end scenes, I wasn’t sure that Cagney’s character was actually “yellow” or not.
    Anyhow, sanctimonious saints looking down your noses at the rest of us. the commandment is to not bear false witness, i.e., not harm your neighbor with a fabrication. If this movie charade (if it were such) hurt anybody, I don’t see it. In fact, it was meant to help youths avoid the near occasion and crime-ruined lives.
    Plus, we have no duty to be truthful with evil men committing evil acts.

  • “Looking back at my reactions (over the years) to the end scenes, I wasn’t sure that Cagney’s character was actually “yellow” or not.”

    Cagney when asked would never give his opinion, preferring the ambiguity that the scene presents. However, there is nothing in the rest of the movie that indicates that the Sullivan character, for all his moral failings, was not a very brave man.

  • I was going to point out that the 8th commandment says to not bear false witness against one’s neighbor, but T Shaw beat me to the punch, as it were. If one goes to hell for lying, then I suspect it won’t be for the kind of lie which that priest admonished the prisoner to make.
    “I will tell the truth no matter how many innocent people die because I self-righteously and Pharisiticly (is that a word?) kept my holier-than-thou conscience clean.” “Look at me, Lord, I am not like that publican….”

  • Being brave and being scared are not mutually exclusive. Being brave only happens when it overcomes fear.
    He was brave on two levels. Facing death as a person. And giving up his public persona for the young men he was truthful and so was the priest who saw the depth of rocky, who trusted the mercy of God, and helped Rocky to do the right thing.

  • Justice is predicated on intent. This does not mean that the end justifies the means if the means are evil. He who lives in the Lord is above the law.

Murder and Redemption

Sunday, May 3, AD 2015




When I was a kid I watched way too much TV.  How little of those hours I can recall now!  However there is one television show that I watched that has always stayed with me.  On October 25, 1971, when I was a freshman in high school, a Gunsmoke episode aired entitled Trafton.  The guest star of the episode was character actor Victor French, who would make twenty-three appearances on Gunsmoke, usually portraying a villain.  The Trafton episode was no exception.  He portrayed a gunman known simply as Trafton.  A murderer, Trafton had learned the gunman’s trade while riding with Confederate raider “Bloody Bill” Anderson during the War.  The episode opens with Trafton and his gang shooting up a town in New Mexico.  They attempt to rob the bank, only to find that the vault contains no money.  Frustrated, on his way out of town Trafton sees a Catholic Church.  He enters the Church and goes up to the altar, and takes a gold cross, a gold communion chalice and a gold paten.  The priest appears and tries to stop him,  Trafton unhesitatingly gunning down the priest.  Seeing a gold cross about the neck of the dying priest, Trafton stoops down to remove the cross.  As he does so the priest with his last strength, to the utter astonishment of Trafton, says, “I forgive you.” and with his bloody right hand traces a cross on the forehead of Trafton just before he dies.  Trafton uneasily touches his forehead, and then leaves the Church and rides off.

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