Friday 2 January 2009

That Cagney Swagger

James Cagney's swagger truly caught my Christmas strained eyes whilst watching Angels with Dirty Faces last night. Both hands held slightly out in front (very slightly), swinging stiffly from the shoulder, as his legs pipped along. He keeps this gait as he walks the last mile to the chair, a moment that really got to me, even though I'd seen the film years before and knew what was coming.. The hall is wide and sparse and Curtiz cuts between closer shots of Pat O'Brien barely taking his eyes from his childhood friend as Rocky Sullivan's eyes stay as fixed as his resolution not to go "yellow" and wider shots where Cagney's swagger is displayed for all to see in. It's a hell of a moment and got me slightly emotional, which is usually and odd thing for a film as old as this.

The opening shot of Rocky's neighbourhood is also an absolute cracker, as the camera pans right to left from a close up on a newspaper headline to a wide angle across the incredibly crowded and busy street, it''s walls a moving painting of dozens of beaten rugs and hanging laundry. A simple camera movement capturing a bravura piece of onscreen organisation. It's repeated later on to effectively show the passing of time in the neighbourhood. The newspaper headline, music and cars have changed but the rugs and laundry across the fire exits and balconies still remain.

Another thing I love about this film is the casting of faces. The Dead End kids all have a different look, especially Leo Gorcey as Bimm, who I always thought looked a bit like Cagney (this film has more than one Cagney lookalike in the uncanny Frankie Burke, who played the young Rocky). Gorcey takes a shot at the pool table, dressed to the nines and surrounded by similarly aged extras as onlookers, only perhaps better looking by today's Hollywood standards.

If this was cast today, the bland pretty boys would be likely be cast as the Dead End kids, leaving the more interesting and far more cinematically photogenic faces in the background or perhaps even not cast at all.

On to more Cagney methinks.


  1. The early Cagney comedies like Lady Killer and Hard to Handle are must-sees. He unleashes that energy in a slightly different way, but it's still electrifying. And they're so sleazy!

  2. Thanks, I'll check 'em out. Any idea how available they are?


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