Like any of James Cagney’s procession of “classic” gangster movies that ruled the roost in the thirties, you have to allow a fair amount of licence for the predilections of the day. Which means to say that Michael Curtiz, who went on to direct Casablanca, spreads the melodrama as thick as marmalade, while the stilted rhythms of the corny dialogue and one-dimensional moralism are less old-fashioned than from a different world entirely.
Yet, this is a film with a stern heart and a genuine brain, that for once used the strictures of the Hayes Code (with its strangulating hold on Hollywood) to its own advantage — a chance to examine the nihilistic heart of the criminal and the forces that shape them.
Cagney, as is his wont chewing off vast lumps of the scenery, cannot escape the grip of his past like his friend and moral opposite Pat O’Brien has managed. He does, however, grasp why he should. Actually, when you boil it down, this is far less the gangster film than appearances might suggest. It is set in New York’s, then, slum-ridden Hell’s Kitchen, a hive for gangsters and lowlifes, and Rocky is trying to reinvigorate his place in the racketeering game, but it is far more a character piece about the possibilities for redemption. As much a test for Father Jerry’s mettle as Rocky; will he have to turn his old friend in? Does loyalty withstand questions of what is right?
The final note, as Rocky ends-up facing the consequences of his crimes (a moral outcome that the production code necessitated) carries the tragic but inspiring undertone of a man, at last, doing the right thing.