Friday March 26, 2021
Movie Review: Shake Hands with the Devil (1959)
By my calculations, James Cagney died 14 times in the movies, and this is his final fall. He gets it in the hills of Ireland overlooking the ocean, at the hands of the young man he recruited to the cause. Fitting.
Follow-up question: How many of these deaths were by gun? In my memory, Cagney's always getting plugged and staggering along the streets before collapsing and expiring—like in “The Public Enemy.” Except … that happens there, sure, but it’s not what kills him. He winds up in the hospital, Schemer Burns’ gang kidnaps him, then delivers his mummified corpse to his family. I assume he’s plugged at the end of “He Was Her Man,” but that’s off-screen. “Angels with Dirty Faces”? Electric chair. “White Heat”? Explosion. I’ll cut to the chase. In his long, gangster-ridden career, Cagney is killed by guns only four times: “The Roaring Twenties” (by one of Bogie’s men), “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” (Barbara Payton, repeating the title line just before pulling the trigger), “A Lion Is In the Streets” (by his sister, Jeanne), and here, at the hands of Don Murray.
Cagney gets star billing but Murray is the leading man, Kerry O’Shea, an Irish-American who slowly gets swept up in the Irish fight for freedom in 1921. Cagney plays Dr. Sean Lenihan, a charming professor at the College of Surgeons, where O’Shea studies, who is secretly a revolutionary. He’s the last man standing in the IRA cause. Top of the world, pa.
Nah, nah, nah, nah … OK
It’s not a bad movie. The black-and-white photography and the framing are striking. Not sure who to credit. Michael Anderson directed, Erwin Hiller was cinematographer, and between them they have one Oscar nomination (Anderson), one BAFTA (Hiller), and not much else. The story, which tends toward melodrama, is from a 1934 novel by Rearden Conner, adapted by Marian Spitzer, while late-era Cagney writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (“White Heat,” “Man of a Thousand Faces”) get writing credits.
It’s another late-era Cagney movie that begins with narration:
Dublin, 1921: a city at war. Often in its turbulent history, the men of Ireland had risen to fight for their freedom—only to be crushed. This was the year of total war. It was also the year of the Black and Tan, the army assembled to replace the English regulars, who had lost their taste for the suppression of men in search of freedom.
At this point, the camera settles onto a cemetery, where O’Shea is laying flowers at the grave of his mother. He nods as a contingent of mourners go by, but then the Black and Tans pull up, their casket is revealed to be full of weapons, and everyone scatters. O’Shea, questioned, has all the right answers—he’s innocent—then covers for a woman he knows is guilty. It was just an instinct, he tells his friend, Paddy Nolan (Ray McAnally).
Earlier I said O’Shea gets slowly swept up in the Irish cause, and boy does he ever. It takes half the movie.
Paddy starts the lobbying. They have expository dialogue about how O’Shea is a World War vet who’s seen enough violence, yadda yadda, but his heart is with Paddy’s cause. “Your heart’s not enough,” Paddy tells. That’s the main thing they talk about—recruiting O’Shea. At a pub, the Black and Tan come in and push people around. Does that turn him? Nah. On the way home, a revolutionary blows up a B&T transport and the street turns into a shooting gallery. That? Nope. O’Shea’s instinct is again to help, Paddy’s is to protect O’Shea, and Paddy is killed in the effort. Surely that? No, keeping going. By this point he’s already associated with the revolutionaries, so Lenihan brings him underground and make an offer: take a boat back to the states or fight. O’Shea, blank-faced: “I’ve done all the killing I intend to do.”
Now they’re off to a farm, where O’Shea is bullied by O’Brien (a young Richard Harris), charmed by Noonan (an excellent Cyril Cusack), and charmed again by Kitty (Glynis Johns), a bar maid and paramour of many of the revolutionaries, whom Lenihan doesn’t trust. The O’Brien scene isn’t bad. He questions O’Shea’s manhood, saying it won’t take more than a breath of wind to blow him over, then feints a blow. O’Shea stands firm, decks O’Brien and continues to declare his pacifism: “When that boat comes, I’ll be on it.” The Noonan scene isn’t bad, either. He’s a poet, whose calm appeals to O’Shea—and us. “Do you think I’m running out?” he wonders aloud. This fence-straddling continues until, because of a boob move by O’Brien, O’Shea is hauled away by the B&Ts, tortured by a Gestapo-looking Col. Smithson (Christopher Rhodes), and rescued by Lenihan. Then he finally joins the cause. To celebrate, he grabs Kitty and makes out with her. As one does.
By this point, the sympathetic Lady Fitzhugh (Sybil Thorndike) has been imprisoned and is on a hunger strike, so, as potential exchange, Lenihan kidnaps the daughter of the adviser to the military governor, Jennifer Curtis (Dana Wynter), who just happens to be young and beautiful, with a long, lovely neck. Of course she and O’Shea are attracted to each other. (Whither Kitty?) All the while, Lenihan is revealing himself to be more and more radical. A chance for peace but without a republic? Never! On the beach he actually chokes Kitty and throws her onto the sand—continuing Cagney’s onscreen violence against women that began with Mae Clarke and a grapefruit 30 years earlier. Then they all go to the dock to assassinate Col. Smithson.
Except Kitty’s there, too. She’s been fingered to the B&T, doesn’t think she’d stand up to torture, and has booked passage to Liverpool. Questioned by the cops, she spots O’Brien and panics; the B&Ts see that, give O’Brien chase, and Lenihan thinks she ratted them out. In the ensuing gun battle, O’Brien, shooting two-fisted and ham-fisted, is killed, Lenihan kills Kitty in cold blood, and O’Shea goes into the drink. Back at the lighthouse, we get one of the oddest transitions I’ve ever seen—like something out of an SNL skit. They’re counting their dead, everyone is somber, and the man standing behind O’Shea says, “Yes, it’s bad,” somberly. Then his face suddenly brightens. “But it’s all over now!” Because of the peace treaty. I burst out laughing.
Even as the General (Michael Redgrave), a Michael Collins figure, heads to London to negotiate, Lenihan fights on. Lady Fitzhugh has died? Well, then he’s doing to kill Jennifer! Rather than shoot her in her room, though, he takes her to a picturesque bluff overlooking the ocean, which of course allows O’Shea to follow, and challenge him and shoot him. Since this is a late ’50s indie movie, we get one more melodramatic flourish: After cradling the head of the man whose life he took, O’Shea, our antiviolent hero, looks at the gun with disgust and chucks it over the cliff. Cut to: a closeup of the gun in the sand as the surf comes in. Fin.
Again, parts aren’t bad. Not sure how you make O’Shea’s fence-sitting more interesting but they don’t manage it. Maybe Murray wasn’t actor enough. Cagney’s lilt tends to leave him when Lenihan is angry, which is most of the second half of the movie, and his sudden fury at all the pretty women is inexplicable. (I kept wondering if he was a closeted homosexual.) Harris is good, if a bit too 1950s Method, while his character is such a fuckup as to be comic: He challenges O’Shea and loses, brings a gun to a stakeout when told not to, and blurts out Lenihan’s identity in front of a hostage, forcing O’Shea to kill the man. He makes no right move. I loved Cyril Cusack. Don’t know how you act calm and wise but he did. I wanted to keep hanging with the guy.
The posters are abysmal. That odd sketch of Cagney with gun in hand and scarf flying? It’s both cheap and makes him look way older than his 60 years. Can’t imagine the marketing discussions. “Hmm, not quite right. What if we turn him blue and add a photo of Glynis Johns in a bathing suit at his feet? There, perfect.” The movie entered the public domain a while ago so it’s been abused in the usual fashion. The only DVD available is in the wrong aspect ratio and is part of a four-part Shout Factory “Action-Adventure Movie Marathon,” along with a 1970s Roger Corman exploitation flick, a cheap Indian Jones ripoff, and a forgettable early ’80s actioner. Deserves better company.
The title, by the way, is the first part of an old Irish saying: “Shake hands with the devil and you’ll never get it back.” Cagney was excited to do it, his first and only movie in Ireland, and was, by all accounts, his usual self: a charming, down-to-earth raconteur on the set, a faraway fella off it. Others went for pints, he went home. Not counting “Ragtime,” it’s his third-to-last movie. He was a movie-a-year guy by this time. He was sitting in the exit row.