Rocky Dies Yellow

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Now, here’s a thing – “Whaddya hear, whaddya say?”. A greeting used between the main characters of ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’, yet another black and white Warner Brothers’ film that often makes it into makes my top ten favourites. It starts with two teenage boys stealing fountain pens out of a railway boxcar. Accosted, they make a run for it. One (‘Rocky Sullivan’ – James Cagney) is caught. The other (‘Jerry Connally’ – Patrick O’Brien) gets away.

Then we see the fateful consequences of that event. Rocky goes to reform school, graduates to prison and becomes a hardened gangster and racketeer. Jailed for armed robbery,  when he is released he expects to recover his $100,000 loot from his co-conspirator, mob lawyer ‘Jim Frazier’ (Humphrey Bogart – not yet the big star he was to become). Frazier stalls on the money, giving Rocky $500 and promising the rest by the end of the week.

Rocky meets up again with Jerry (now a Catholic priest) who advises him  to get a place “in the old parish”. Rocky does and then has his pocket picked by a gang of young toughs. After Rocky tracks them down to his old childhood hideout and the gang admit to an admiration of Rocky’s reputation and criminal lifestyle. After retrieving his wallet, Rocky invites them to dinner. It turns out this is a group of boys Jerry has been working with and trying to save from a life of crime. 

Frazier tries to have Rocky bumped off and Rocky retaliates by kidnapping Frazier, raiding his house at gunpoint and stealing $2,000 and a ledger full of incriminating information.

Refusing his  ‘anonymous’ donation of $10,000 for a new community centre, Jerry tells Rocky he is going to denounce the crime and corruption that is all around and start a reform campaign. Rocky wishes him well, and as the campaign gathers momentum protects his old friend with the threat of exposing what’s in the ledger.

After a shoot-out Rocky is shot in the leg and caught. After standing trial (and spilling the beans), he is sentenced to death.

Before the execution, Jerry pleads with Rocky to die as a coward and begging for mercy on his way to the death house, so the boys won’t look up to him.  Rocky refuses, and he asks Jerry to promise that he won’t hear him praying as they go to the execution room. Jerry promises ‘You won’t hear me pray’, but is seen silently doing so. Then, Rocky starts begging and screaming for mercy as he’s strapped in the electric chair, and seemingly dying a coward’s death.

Reading of how ‘Rocky dies yellow” in the face of his execution, the gang refuse to believe it. They ask Jerry if it is true that Rocky had died a coward, and Jerry confirms it. He then asks them to accompany him to go say a prayer for “a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could”.

What do we make of this as Christians? Well, first of all it is a very Catholic film (we even get a boys’ choir singing ‘Ave Maria’ at one point).  We see that the world is a corrupt place and that the Church is beleaguered. (Jerry, it seems to me, is fighting a losing battle).  Also, there is really no personal faith on show (When asked why he became a priest Jerry says he was passing the church on a bus and that sort of decided it. On the  other hand he urges Rocky to ‘Get right with God’),  and the emphasis is on a social gospel.  Not that we should decry the call to good works as Christians.

The real interest lies in the issue of redemption for Rocky at the end and the moral ambiguity revealed by Jerry’s request. Think about it – Jerry asks Rocky to pretend to be scared so he can truthfully tell the boys that he died yellow. But if Rocky gives up his personal code and reputation for the sake of the boys and Jerry hides this, then he is being untruthful. Also, even if Rocky does not retain the admiration of the boys,  he gains the admiration of the audience. Except, of course, what if Rocky was just boasting, and actually was yellow at the very end? Cagney always said he played it to be seen either way. But in the end, it is not where we stand with others that counts at the end, it is where we stand with God.