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 City for Conquest

City For Conquest

James Cagney was a force of nature, both on the screen and off. The raw power of his performances always seemed to raise mundane material to a higher level, and he wasn't about to be pushed around by a director. That can definitely be said of his experience on City for Conquest (1940), one of those melodramatic "New York" stories that Warner Bros. was so fond of in the Thirties and Forties. Cagney single-handedly gooses the clichéd storyline into high gear, and his pragmatic attitude toward his work won out over what he saw as the artsy fussiness of his director, Anatole "Tola" Litvak.

Cagney plays Danny Kenny, a street-tough truck driver who grows up on Manhattan's Lower East Side with a young woman named Peggy Nash (Ann Sheridan). Danny wants to marry Peggy, but she's hoping to rise to a new station in life, and marrying a trucker isn't likely to do that. In an attempt to impress Peggy, and, not incidentally, earn enough money to send his sensitive brother, Eddie (Arthur Kennedy), to music school, Danny becomes a professional boxer. (Is it just me, or is somebody always taking up prize fighting for money in these movies?) Peggy, for her part, hooks up with a suave lothario named Murray Burns (Anthony Quinn), and becomes a successful dancer. This will lead to a battle for Peggy's heart as well as the kind of life-altering injury that boxers only receive in the movies.

City for Conquest is far more entertaining than it has any right to be. But it might have completely faded into the mists of movie history were it not for one of Cagney's co-stars- a young actor named Elia Kazan, who, of course, would go on to become a groundbreaking stage and screen director. Kazan wrote rather extensively about his work on City for Conquest in his autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life. During the filming he learned a great deal about on-set politics while observing the battle of wills between Cagney and Litvak.

"The crew liked and respected Cagney," Kazan wrote. "They were off the street too – but they didn't like the way Tola spoke to them, and Jimmy didn't either. Tola had an abrupt way of giving orders, was always dominating and impatient with objection and error." Kazan also noted Litvak's unorthodox shooting technique, which consisted of filming as much of the scene as possible in one, catch-all take, via a panning camera that was being pushed on a dolly. This required the actors to hit scores of marks during a single scene. Locating sundry chalk lines on the floor soon began to overtake the all-important rehearsal process, and it drove Cagney to distraction.

Cagney, however, would get his revenge while shooting the picture: "In his quiet way (Cagney) made Tola eat dirt. In the last scene of the film, Jimmy had a heavy scar over one eyebrow, the kind prizefighters acquire. It was carefully put on by a makeup man in the morning." Cagney would work with his usual intensity all day long, but when quitting time approached, he was done. "Toward the end of the afternoon, Cagney, whose contract specified that he was through at five-thirty, would look at his watch, and if, in his opinion – Cagney's, not Tola's, not the cameraman's – there wasn't enough time to get the shot the electricians were preparing, Jimmy would pull off the scar and so bring the day's work to a close. He'd walk off the set without a word to Litvak."

Kazan grew to admire Cagney while working on the picture. "Jimmy was a completely honest actor," he wrote. "I imagine he'd have figured out each scene at home, what he'd do and how he'd do it, then come to work prepared. But what he did always seemed spontaneous." Kazan viewed Cagney as something of a natural: "He had no schooling in the art of acting, although he had tremendous respect for good actors. If the Actors Studio had existed then, I'm sure he would have despised it...Jimmy didn't see scenes in great complexity; he saw them in a forthright fashion, played them with savage energy, enjoyed his work."

Director: Anatole Litvak
Producer: Anatole Litvak
Associate Producer: William Cagney
Screenplay: John Wexley (based on the novel by Aben Kandel)
Cinematographer: Sol Polito, James Wong Howe
Editor: William Holmes
Music: Max Steiner
Music Director: Leo F. Forbstein
Dialogue Director: Irving Rapper
Art Director: Robert Haas
Dance Director: Robert Vreeland
Special Effects: Byron Haskin, Rex Wimpy
Principal Cast: James Cagney (Danny Kenny), Ann Sheridan (Peggy Nash), Frank Craven (Old Timer), Donald Crisp (Scotty MacPherson), Arthur Kennedy (Eddie Kenny), Frank McHugh (Mutt), George Tobias (Pinky), Jerome Cowan (Dutch), Elia Kazan (Googi Zucco), Anthony Quinn (Murray Burns), Lee Patrick (Gladys), Blanche Yurka (Mrs. Nash), George Lloyd (Goldie), Joyce Compton (Lily), Thurston Hall (Max Leonard).
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by Paul Tatara

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