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Short Cut to Hell was the only feature film directed by noted actor James Cagney. According to various Paramount press releases, the film originally contained a brief preface, in which Cagney, seated in a director's chair, introduced his two young stars, Robert Evers and Georgann Johnson, to the audience. Short Cut to Hell marked Johnson's film debut. Paramount press releases claim that Cagney cast Johnson in the film after seeing her on the Mr. Peepers television series. Short Cut to Hell was also the feature film debut of longtime nightclub performer Danny Lewis, the father of Paramount comedy star Jerry Lewis. According to a January 28, 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item, Tom Tryon had been cast in a starring role in Short Cut to Hell, but he did not appear in the released film.
According to the file on the film in the Paramount collection at the AMPAS Library, the film was produced for the very modest budget of $346,669, minus Cagney's directing fees. Studio records contain no mention of Cagney's salary for Short Cut to Hell, and some modern sources, including Cagney's autobiography, claim that he directed the film for free as a favor to his old friend, first-time producer A. C. Lyles, long-time Paramount executive. Other modern sources state that Cagney received a small stipend to direct the film, along with an undisclosed percentage of the film's profits.
According to Paramount press releases, the film was shot at various locations throughout Southern California, including a train station in Saugus, the Harvey Aluminum plant in Torrance and mansions in Pasadena and the Berkeley Square district of Los Angeles. Early Hollywood Reporter production charts include Valerie Allen in the cast, but it is doubtful that she appears in the released film. Hollywood Reporter new items also include Charles R. Keane, John Benson and George Gilbreath in the cast, but their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
Short Cut to Hell, like the 1941 Paramount release This Gun for Hire, which starred Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake under the direction of Frank Tuttle (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50), was based on Graham Greene's novel A Gun for Sale, Although This Gun for Hire's screenplay was written by W. R. Burnett and Albert Maltz, only Burnett was given a "based on the screenplay credit on Short Cut to Hell. In letters to Burnett and the Writer's Guild of America in late February 1957, Paramount stated that it was invoking Article Six of the Producer-Writer Guild of America, West, Amended Minimum Basic Agreement of 1955 in order to remove Maltz's screenplay credit, as the writer was a blacklisted member of the Hollywood Ten. (For more information about blacklisting and the Hollywood Ten, see entry for Crossfire in AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50. For more information about the Writers Guild blacklist credits committee, for The Las Vegas Story.) In October 1997, Hollywood Reporter announced that the WGA was restoring Maltz's screen credit for Short Cut to Hell.