You don’t have to be a worshipper at the shrine of James Cagney to find merit in Shake Hands with the Devil, but it is only likely to be those who consider him one of the greatest hard men in movie history who derive true pleasure from the film’s appearance on DVD.
don’t have to be a worshipper at the
shrine of James Cagney to find
merit in Shake Hands with the Devil, but it is only likely to be those who consider
him one of the greatest hard men in movie history who derive true pleasure from
the film’s appearance on DVD.
As a voiceover tells us, this is a story
about men and guns, of conflict between Irish Republicans and the Black and
Tans in Dublin in 1921. Heavy stuff, on the face of it, but the treatment is
essentially melodramatic and suffers from the central miscasting of American Don Murray, plainly at sea amidst an
otherwise stellar cast. Murray, cleft chin firmly in place throughout, plays a
clean-cut young American medical student who, because of his deceased father’s
connections, becomes embroiled in the Republican movement. We spend fifty
minutes awaiting the moment of his inevitable conversion, and a further fifty
as he equally predictably recoils from the hard line militancy of “the
Commandant,” played by Cagney. What little later tension there is in the
narrative is undermined by a tedious romantic diversion between Murray and the
beautiful Dana Wynter.
If Shake Hands with the Devil seldom grips
as a story, however, there are several points of interest. When Cagney made
this film, aged 60, his career was in inexorable decline. Only three more movies followed this –
and one of those was narration only – before a “comeback” as a frail,
wheelchair-bound old man in the early 1980s. The electric tension of his
performance here is remarkable, though. It is impossible to take your eyes of
him. In one scene, he shares the screen with the great English thespian Sir Michael Redgrave and the contrast
in style is fascinating – the latter, cerebral and restrained, Cagney, utterly
artificial, yet with his tersely rhythmic, machine gun delivery, as utterly
convincing as he was in his Gangster movie, Warner Brothers heyday.
Other creditable performances include an
early supporting role from a young Richard
Harris, Cyril Cusack as a philosophical Irish republican, and Glynis Johns- the good girl of so many
1940s Ealing films – as an Irish slattern.
Apart from its dose of latterday Cagney,
the most notable aspect of the film, however, is the cinematography of Edwin Hillier, a regular collaborator
with director Michael Anderson,
including on The Dam Busters and The Quiller Memorandum. The chiaroscuro
effects of the wide shots of damp Dublin back streets echo Carol Reed’s
considerably more taut IRA drama, Odd Man Out, of a decade earlier. The Irish country
sequences have a rustic lyricism suggesting the influence of Powell and Pressburger. Given the weakness of the story, unfortunately, these
touches merely serve as a reminder that no amount of style can rescue an