James Cagney, one of Hollywood's first stars and possibly the most famous in the 1930s and 1940s. It wasn't that I actively disliked Cagney or his movies, but the over the top, fast-talking little tough guy never appealed to me. So having seen only two Cagney movies, I'm giving him a try and seeing what he's all about.
The most recent one I've watched is one of his later pictures, 1959's Shake Hands With the Devil. Cagney was nearing 60 years old when he made this British production, but he shows no signs of slowing down. His character goes through quite an arc from beginning to end, starting off as a heroic freedom fighter and ending up as an obsessed quasi-villain. But through it all, the focus and attention is on him, especially with a second-billed star who just can't keep up with him.
It's 1921 in Ireland and American veteran of WWI Kerry O'Shea (Don Murray) is studying at a surgeon school to become a doctor. With the IRA battling the Black and Tans in hopes of making their country a free republic, Ireland is up for grabs with violence in the streets on every corner. O'Shea is walking home late one night with a friend when he's forced to take action against the Black and Tans, making him a marked man. He's supposed to be smuggled out of Ireland, but ends up joining an IRA squad, led by Sean Linehan (Cagney), his professor at the medical school. O'Shea joins the effort with the squad's sights set on one man, a brutal local commander, but the effort begins to take a toll on the men, especially Linehan at the top.
A story that focuses on a bloody, often incredibly brutal fight for independence has to tread a fine line in how it tells the story. Both the IRA and the Black and Tans committed atrocities during the fighting for Irish independence from British rule. Director Michael Anderson does not paint either side as completely heroic or completely villainous to his credit. Both sides have flaws and are willing to murder, maim and sabotage, whatever it takes to get their side to win. Obviously focusing on the Irish Republican Army more than their opponents the viewer will get more depth and background from one side, but even then it's not always positive, most of that coming from Cagney's Linehan.
It's obvious early on that Cagney is not just making a cameo appearance as an Irishman teaching at a medical school so it does not come as much of a surprise when he's revealed to be an IRA commandant with years of experience and know-how. Once O'Shea joins the group, Linehan is a strong, sturdy leader who is committed to his men and to the fight, more than ready to give his life if the cause demands it. But as the fighting continues, Linehan begins to crack a bit and his personal issues begin to emerge, especially with a young barmaid (Glynis Johns) who hangs around with his men, and the ever-present threat from traitors and informers. Even when it seems the fighting is nearing its end, Linehan refuses to give up, wanting to continue the fight.
As his counter though, Murray's Terry O'Shea starts off as an interesting character, but he fades into the background midway through the movie. He's a WWI vet sick of killing and violence and just wants to move on to a new life as a doctor when he's thrust into this fight for independence. His father a former freedom fighter, O'Shea has to live up to certain expectations, but by the end he's fallen in love with a young English girl (Dana Wynter) who he met about 10 minutes ago. Thankfully the rest of the cast steps up, including Michael Redgrave as the General, an IRA leader, Cyril Cusack as Chris Noonan, poet turned IRA gunman, and even Richard Harris in just his second movie playing Terrence O'Brien, a self-assured but capable member of Lenihan's squad.
Filming in Ireland, Anderson made the choice to film in black and white as opposed to color. It is a decision that makes sense because of the tone and mood of the story. If he had chosen a color format, 'Shake Hands' would look like The Quiet Man. But lush green fields and soft rolling hills would seem out of place with a story focusing on such a dark subject. Full of shadows, Anderson made the right choice going with black and white instead of color. It's an interesting movie with a controversial topic and worth watching if you can track it down.
Shake Hands With the Devil (1959): ** 1/2 /****