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Rocky Sullivan

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James Cagney as Rocky Sullivan

Tough guy killer or a kid who got no breaks?

Morning, gentlemen. Nice day for a murder.
~ Rocky Sullivan at the height of his rampage

William "Rocky" Sullivan was the primary antagonist and co-main character of the 1938 gangster classic Angels With Dirty Faces. He was played as an adult (and thus for the bulk of the film) by quintessential film mobster James Cagney.

Fifteen years before the film's main story, a young Rocky and his pal Jerry Connolly are on the run from police after a failed heist. Jerry is able to run, jump over a fence and get away; Rocky is caught and sent to a tough reform school, where he learns the ways of crime and retribution. Ultimately caught for armed bank robbery, he agrees to take the fall for his partners, so that they will pay him a large sum of money when he gets out of prison. Emerging three years after this, Rocky starts to get suspicious when he tries to collect, but his partners placate him with some spending money. Going back to his old neighborhood, he runs into Jerry, now Father Connolly, the priest of their local parish, trying his best to guide a group of troubled youths out of the life that he barely escaped and seemed to consume Rocky. While Jerry worries about the influence of his old friend on the youth under his charge (played by Leo Gorcey and the Dead End Kids, later of the Bowery Boys film series), he refuses to turn Rocky away, partly out of the knowledge that he himself could easily have gone the same way. The tough, cool, free-spending Rocky can't fail to make an impact on the impressionable kids, and brushes off Jerry's efforts to stop this.

But Rocky's world is only glamorous on the surface. His former partners try to kill both him and their debt, leading Rocky to retaliate until a truce is arranged once Rocky steals an incriminating ledger, dangerous to his partners and maybe other highly placed officials in New York City. Jerry, who is offered a dream project for the kids in his parish, refuses to play along and publicly denounces Rocky and his partners. At first, Rocky tries to save Jerry from execution by his partners, but quickly realizes that they're both now targets, and so gleefully kills the double-crossers. When he also kills a police officer while in flight from the first murders, Jerry tries to get Rocky to surrender. A maddened Rocky seizes Jerry as a human shield and hostage, but is caught and sentenced to die in the electric chair.

On the night of his execution, Jerry makes one last plea to Rocky; since his life is done, he needs to make a show of pleading for his life, showing the boys he influenced that crime only leads one way, with no glory at the end. At first, Rocky refuses, but in an ambiguous scene, on his way to the chair he does beg and plead for mercy, crying his eyes out. It's unknown whether he did this on behalf of the children or was genuinely panicking. Jerry tells the heartbroken boys that Rocky indeed went out like a coward, seeming to break his hold over them in death, though Jerry remains uncertain why he did it.

"All right, fellas. Let's go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn't run as fast as I could." - Father Connolly, very much knowing his late childhood friend's fate could well have been his own.

Trivia

  • According to Wikipedia, this film has a rare 100% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, with both older and newer critics praising its style and message as timeless. It is often parodied or homaged.
  • This film was nominated for three Oscars and won two.
  • Rocky was played by film legend James Cagney; his cohorts were no slouches, either, with Jerry played by Pat O'Brien, his one partner played by George Bancroft, and his main betraying partner played by Humphrey Bogart. Nearly everyone involved either was or soon became a 'bankable' name in Hollywood.
  • The divergent fates of Rocky and Jerry are often seen as almost a look at alternate universes, since the boys they started as were so precisely similar.

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