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


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.


Rocky:  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?
Rocky:  Yeah.
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.
Rocky:  No.
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.

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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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”.

  4. 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:

  5. 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.

  6. “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:

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.”

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. “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.

  15. 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….”

  16. 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.

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