Shake Hands With the Devil
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There may not be a Hollywood icon who was less enamored of his own star status than James Cagney. A warm, quiet man who was viewed as a merciless thug by fans around the world, he was forever trying to deflate his public persona, and he simply didn't care about fame. By the time he starred in Michael Anderson's hard-hitting Irish Republican Army melodrama, Shake Hands with the Devil (1959), he was already considering retirement. But he still seemed to enjoy himself during filming. When he wasn't basking in the beauty of the Irish countryside (this was his first visit to the land of his ancestors) he managed to deliver an extended, highly amusing performance for the gathered press.
Cagney plays Sean Lenihan, a professor at Dublin's Royal College of Surgeons who also happens to moonlight as a soldier in the IRA. Set in 1921, the story follows the ongoing battle between the IRA and British Black and Tan forces. Lenihan attempts to win his students (including one Irish-American played by Don Murray) over to the IRA's side, but his belief in violence as a solution is a tough sell. One student, however, will have a change of heart. And Lenihan will stand by his ideals until the very end, which is just as dark as one might expect, given the set-up.
The reviews were split on Shake Hands with the Devil. Several critics hailed Cagney's volcanic performance, and made special mention of Erwin Hillier's gorgeous cinematography. Others, though, felt that the wavering Irish accents of several of Cagney's co-stars distracted from the proceedings. But that's quibbling. Although the story may be unwieldy at times, this is one of the strongest roles of Cagney's latter-day career, and, rather than trying to act like a younger man, he wisely uses his advancing age to imbue his character with a little more depth. You can see that this somewhat misguided man has been through more than he cares to reveal, and Cagney lends him a forceful dignity.
When Cagney showed up in Ireland to begin filming the picture, he was embarrassed that the locals made such a big deal out of his presence. As far as they were concerned, Cagney was one of their own...never mind that he grew up in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. "Twenty years ago, I might have rated the big-star treatment," Cagney said, "but not now." True to form, he tried to undermine expectations by padding around the set in a pair of beat-up slippers. It was noted by some, however, that the slippers cost in the ballpark of $100 - a pretty steep sum for casual footwear.
Aware that he was starting to put on a few pounds, Cagney attempted to get closer to fighting shape before the cameras rolled. But he did so with his usual eye toward self-deprecation. On one memorable occasion, he held a press conference while an assistant pounded out tunes - including Yankee Doodle Dandy - on an upright piano. Cagney danced the entire time he answered questions, explaining to reporters that he was eight pounds overweight and could think of no more enjoyable way to lose them. "People get the idea," he said while puffing along, "that all film actors have to do is walk on a set, do as they are told, and collect a sum of money. It's not so. It's a job of work like any other job, you gotta be ready. I knew a guy who didn't take exercise between pictures. He had to run in one film. Took his heart by surprise. Went 'phhpht.'"
Producer/Director: Michael Anderson
Screenplay: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, Marian Thompson (based on the novel by Rearden Conner)
Cinematography: Erwin Hillier
Editor: Gordon Pilkington
Music: William Alwyn
Production Design: Tom Morahan
Set Design: Josie MacAvin
Costume Design: Irene Gilbert
Principal Cast: James Cagney (Sean Lenihan), Don Murray (Kerry O'Shea), Dana Wynter (Jennifer Curtis), Glynis Johns (Kitty Brady), Michael Redgrave (The General), Sybil Thorndike (Lady Fitzhugh), Marianne Benet (Mary Madigan), John Breslin (McGrath), Harry Brogan (Cassidy).
BW-112m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara