The more years pass, the fewer people who remember this, but before Sylvester Stallone boxed his way through the 1970s and 80s, when you said the name Rocky then everyone knew who you meant: Rocky Sullivan. This movie is why. Jimmy Cagney is William “Rocky” Sullivan, a Bowery hoodlum who gets pinched for his first stint in Juvy in 1923. 15 years later he’s a famous gangster just finished another 3 years in State, and he’s out to find a few things he left on the outside.
He’s found his boyhood hoodlum chum, now Father Connelly, and Rocky’s found the little girl who was sweet on him as a kid, now charwoman at the Bowery flophouse he’s laying low in. Most important, Rocky has left a hundred grand of rumrunning loot with his crooked lawyer, and the story in this flick is Cagney out to find his lawyer and his loot. That’s gonna be a scrape, because Humphrey Bogart is the lawyer.
Along the way he picks up a small army, small as in short. The Dead End Kids, ensemble troupe of the day as the cultural foil to Spanky’s Our Gang kids, now inhabit Rocky’s boyhood hideout. Out of the joint and clawing his way back to the top of the underworld, Rocky has to navigate the pull of the old neighborhood, the lure of easy money, and the people who cling onto that money.
Since this is 1938, there is a code imposed on Hollywood that the bad guy can never win in the end, a screenwriting self-censorship which held fast until the late 1960s. Thus the emotional ending and swelling music. Thus, 1930s ganster flicks are all about the sharp with a heart of gold or the cop who gets his man, and this one is the state of the art. Current box office heavyweight Cagney shines with up-and-comer Bogart, who had a string of bad-guy roles which led to this casting, and here Bogart shows the chops that will soon get him leading roles.
The music is by Max Steiner, and deserves notice for his nascent style of punchnote-3notes-fade in the incidental accompaniment here, which would reach perfection four years later when he scored a Bogart film again: Casablanca.
The filming is taut and angle conscious, someone here has seen German films of the 1920s. Floor-up shots with expressive shadowing, and with recurrence of visual themes via the lighting, we are treated to a cohesive photographic vision. Early in Rocky’s criminal career towering boxcars presage the running theme of incarceration, and late in the movie the Dead End Kids’ boiler-room hideout is soaked with overhead illumination through street grates, completing the circle. Even when out of jail, the life of crime is a prison.
Although produced in accordance with the censor’s boundaries, Cagney fills the film with a personality of snappy banter and tough-guy confidence which is hard to root against. Worth seeing as a cannonical Cagney role, and pre-war supporting performances by Bogart and Sheridan, who would both go to greater heights in the 1940s.