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The Ambiguity In The Box

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Moral ambiguity is one of the stocks-in-trade of literary and art criticism. This or that work of art is said to have moral ambiguity to a high degree and it is usually meant to be a compliment. Now moral ambiguity, given the world we live in, is indeed something that perhaps every work of art should possess to some degree. After all, what can be worse, from the artistic point of view, than to sit in judgement over each and every aspect of human life, when human knowledge of human mind or of human relations, let alone of the cosmic realities, is so little that we can only feel humble at our own collective ignorance. We can also feel collectively criminal, given what we have done to the Earth, but that is a digression. Paraphrasing and putting in the reverse order what Pinter said in his Nobel acceptance speech, unlike in real life, where we often have to (and must) say what is true and what is false (or what is good and what is bad), in art one need not do that. The necessary result of such a well advised policy will be moral ambiguity in art, because art is not Moral Science. That applies as much to popular art as it does to ‘high’ or ‘fine’ art. However, that does not give us the license to see moral ambiguity where it is not present.

The sources of immediate provocation for bringing up this topic are the reviews ([1] [2] [3] [4]) that I have recently read of an acclaimed movie. That movie is called Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), directed by Michael Curtiz. It can be called a gangster movie. On the surface, it is quite run-of-the-mill, but like all ambitious works that achieve some artistic success, by which I don’t mean box office or critical success, but the inherent quality of the work, this one too rises above other similar crime movies. It is also one of those rare movies that are made great (or almost great) mainly because of the acting, in this case the acting of just one person: James Cagney. On this point I am in agreement with all the reviewers of this movie, who, without exception, praise his performance. The direction is good enough, but it has become secondary.

One can also mention before proceeding further that this is a better movie than the overrated Casablanca by the same director. But please don’t let that come in the way of listening to what I have to say about the supposed ambiguity in this movie.

The basic plot is simple and familiar for every movie buff (even to others perhaps). Two boys live in a slum. They are members of, what we euphemistically call, ‘troubled youth’. They indulge in petty thievery (one reviewer called it robbery: unarmed boys trying to steal a little something from a stationary goods-train wagon and failing to do so). On this train ‘robbery’, they are noticed by someone and then chased by two policemen. One gets away, the other gets caught. From then on, their lives are separated for fifteen years. One becomes a priest and the other becomes a hardened criminal. No prize for guessing which one becomes what. Their lives collide again and one of them ultimately loses. No prize again for guessing which one.

The plot would be especially familiar to those who grew up on Hindi films of the seventies, but it was a common plot even in the US in those days, that is, the thirties. Only forty years of difference in progress, instead of fifty. Cheer up. Don’t feel cheated.

So where is the ambiguity? When the hardened criminal comes out of prison one more time and meets his old pal, the priest, he also revisits his old slum. And he runs into not just the girl he used to tease (who, after having waited for fifteen years, pays him back as she always wanted to, but falls in love with him nonetheless: the movie does suggest that they were in love even in the beginning, though their street-smartness required them to express it via mutual hostility), he also runs into a a group of boys just like what he and his friend were. These boys pick his pocket and he bests them (as one reviewer expressed it) to win their admiration. He was already their hero, being a familiar figure in the daily headlines, but now that they have him near them and find out that he lived in the same place and used the same hideout, their admiration is total. These boys are called the Dead End Kids (or Dead End Boys in the movie, I don’t remember which). They are played by the same actors who played similar roles in an earlier series with the same name. The situation is that the good guy priest is trying to ‘straighten’ them. He tries to make them go to the gym and play basketball. Play by the rules, that is. But he fails. It turns out that the bad guy criminal is better at making them play the game by the rules. How would the priest feel?

The movie ends with the bad guy criminal duly coming to an inevitable bad end, as required by the moral Production Code of those days. He is captured after a shootout, which occurs, in the first place, because he was trying to save his friend’s life. For the second time. The first time was just before he was caught after the train ‘robbery’ and was put in the Center for Juvenile Delinquents. Jerry (the to-be priest) had fallen on the rail tracks as a train was approaching and Rocky (the to-be gangster) stopped and helped him get up. That probably cost him his future. But he ain’t complaining. He is the kind who is prepared to ‘take the rap’ for his actions and maintains his tough persona and, when Jerry comes to visit him and asks him why didn’t he name him too (so that he could have got an easier punishment), he (Rocky) advises his best friend, “Always remember: Never be a sucker.”.

So the bad guy comes to a bad end and is sent to die on the electric chair. Now the priest, who already owes his life twice over to his best friend (and had earlier gone on a campaign against all the criminals in the city, including Rocky Sullivan), asks for one last favour from him. Since the boys hero worship him, would he now show “a different kind of courage, a courage that only you and me and God know about” and pretend to die as a coward, instead of maintaining his brave persona to the end, as expected by the boys? That, the priest argues, would save the boys from falling into a criminal life and coming to … a bad end.

Rocky Sullivan refuses the request (it’s the only thing he has: his heroic, even if criminal, image) and walks defiantly to the chair, but just before the last part, after walking the last mile, his shadow is seen through a glass and his voice is heard as he apparently succumbs and cries out for mercy. The next day the media reports that Rocky Sullivan died ‘yellow’ and the priest takes the dejected and disillusioned (isn’t that an appropriate word?) boys to go with him to say prayer for “a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could”. No mention, of course, of the life saving part, which would have caused the hero worship of the bad guy to resurface.

The ambiguity, for many reviewers, is supposed to be in that last act of cowardice. Did he just pretend to die as a coward (for the sake of his friend and the boys who admire him), or did he actually lose his courage in the end? But one can almost excuse the reviewers because James Cagney himself is reported to have said that he tried to make that scene seem ambiguous, and his co-actor (then not quite a star) Humphrey Bogart also appreciated this scene, presumably because of the same ambiguity.

What ambiguity? Where is the ambiguity in that last scene? There is no ambiguity there. If you insist it’s there, may be it’s there in the box. I didn’t see it. Given all that went before in the movie, it is crystal clear to me that Rocky was just pretending to have turned ‘yellow’, granting one more favour to his best friend. And thus failing by his own standards, as well as by those of the others. He died, not a coward, but a sucker.

Actually, there was a reviewer who also didn’t find any ambiguity here. Neither, as he mentioned, his father. He is the one of the robbery mention. But there were others. So I am not completely alone in this.

Movies about crime, movies like this, almost always work at different levels. One is as required by that moral Production Code. Criminals coming to a bad end. The conflict between the good and the bad. Even this is not as simple as it sounds, because at this first level too the bad guy, who is the main character, is shown to be basically a good person (in this movie: in others he may have some good traits), who only came to a bad end because of his circumstances (the movie doesn’t mention his hero worshipping a preceding Rocky Sullivan). That is why he does all those favours to his friend. The movie also shows many other bad characters, who are much worse than him and meant to be seen as such by the audience. But the priest, who is also shown to be really a very good person (who came to a good end), boils down the whole set of circumstances to just one thing: Hero Worship of criminals like Rocky Sullivan. That’s the reason, he seems to believe (like a right-wing conservative nut), if that hero worship was stopped (by hook or by crook), the Dead End Kids will get straightened and will live a good life. So he decides to make an example of his own best friend (who is dying because of him and probably came to a bad end also because of him). For a good cause. For him, ends justify the means. Priesthood and goodness be damned. He is a pragmatic, albeit idealistic, politician. As wily as they come.

The second level, when compared to the first, is what shows up our own moral ambiguity. That is the level of entertainment. How we enjoy those thrilling scenes. How we root for Rocky all the way (as more than one reviewer noted), even when he is in the shootout and is killing policemen. The whole story has been made up mainly for our entertainment. Michael Curtiz (he was famous for his problems with the English language) is known to have said about his movies (and his way of making movies, and may be also for the business of making movies), “Who cares about character (development)? I make it go so fast, no one notices.”. All the way we root for the bad guy, and at the end we set it morally right by delighting in the sorry end of the same bad guy, so that we can go home and sleep well.

That’s the usual thing. What is especially bad here (or is that usual too?) is that there are a lot of other really bad guys. Much worse, as I said. And most of them don’t come to a bad end. They are not even considered or known to be criminals. They live respectable lives. What about their hero worship? Don’t the ‘straight’ but not yet respectable people see them as their role models (or at least look up to them)? The lawyers. The police chief. The businessmen. The mediamen. You can extend the list to the very top.

In fact, as the soon-to-die criminal remarks, all those bad guys were named during the trial and the priest himself had tried to clean the city of all the corruption (with the help of one brave newspaper editor), but nothing happened. The only ones who we see coming to a bad end (except Rocky Sullivan) are those who are killed by Rocky, who is the only one caught and sentenced. So what’s all this about bad guys always coming to a bad end? Does someone really believe that? Did they believe it even in the thirties?

I am talking about the world we have, not the one we should have.

To follow this to the bitter end, one could almost say that the good guy priest finally has his revenge on his friend who didn’t take his offer of help and instead advised him (condescendingly?) to not be a sucker. The monster living in the priest’s dark side might well be looking up during the prayer after the execution and saying triumphantly, who is the sucker now?

The boys, when they first saw him and decided to pick his pocket (and before they realised that he was their hero, Rocky Sullivan), identified him as, yes, a “sucker”. Works of art often say things which their creator may not have intended.

Why were the boys called the Dead End Kids? The word angel is referring to these boys as well as to the famous criminal. One of the dirty-faced angels has to be sacrificed to save the other dirty-faced angels. So it’s all among the dirty-faced angels. Nothing to do with the rest. Be happy, go home and have fun.

It was perhaps the possibility of having to face such questions that sent those reviewers and commentators (and Cagney and Bogart) scrambling to find ambiguity where there was none.

As hinted earlier, there is a kind of ambiguity here, but it’s not in that last scene, which is an embarrassing end to the movie. It’s there in the priest’s character. It’s also there in our reactions to the movie, where it always is. But the criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold’s character is as straightforward as that of any archetype in Western movies. No ambiguity.

The problem (at the first level) is not that the priest is trying to make the kids forego a life of crime. The problem is that his endeavour, like that of the moral Production Code as well as the quest for ambiguity in this particular case, is not genuine. And the solution is not to make suckers out of ‘angels’, dirty-faced or not.

The problem (at the second level) is also that even the last purifying delight of ours just doesn’t work, if you think a little about it. After all, it’s not just the priest and criminal and God who know what really happened. We also know it. And the final bad end was ultimately for our benefit. But if we know that he didn’t die ‘yellow’, then the device breaks down. Now we need something else as a substitute. So we make up the story that we really don’t know. The last scene is ambiguous. In spite of the explicit explanation that went just before it and all that went on earlier, we don’t know whether the cowardice was real or not. May be it was. That would absolve us. Because if he did die yellow, then he did come to a really bad end: in the public eyes, his own eyes, in our eyes. No redemption for him. After having entertained ourselves at his expense, we have appropriated his redemption as well. That’s smart, isn’t it?

We ain’t no suckers.

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Written by anileklavya

December 27, 2011 at 11:58 pm