SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL has James Cagney giving his ferocious all in the final bad-guy role of his career, the 58-year-old bantam traveling to Ireland to head a strong cast in this bleak and challenging 1959 drama. Set in 1921, during the bloody Irish Revolutionary period that pitted various factions against each other in ruthless struggle, it has a calm and respected surgeon/professor moonlight as a remorseless I.R.A. cadre leader. Cagney seethes with cold fanaticism for “the Cause” as his men battle the brutal British police repression from the despised ‘Black and Tans’. An Irish-American student (Don Murray) is convinced to join the revolt after he’s tortured by the Brits, but eventually begins to question not whether Cagney’s chieftain’s heart is in the right place, but rather if he even has one. Jimmy’s fierce and unyielding ‘Sean Lenihan’ is more than willing to have the eye-for-eye mayhem go on & on, and his coiled venom seems to have a pool of repressed inner loathing at its core. The hostage seizure of a prominent and lovely (of course, it’s a movie) Englishwoman (Dana Wynter) spins the 111 minutes to an ultimate showdown.
On the way, ably directed by Michael Anderson, there’s a fair amount of brisk, rough action, topped by an exciting, well-staged gun battle. The tense mood is greatly enhanced by superior black & white cinematography from Erwin Hillier (I Know Where I’m Going!, The Dam Busters, Sands Of The Kalahari). Filming was done near Dublin and on the coast at Bray. William Alwyn provides a suitably dramatic score. *
Though the script does a decent job tracing the convoluted turns of fractious alliances & conflicted loyalty issues, it thuds somewhat with a contrived, sappy romantic angle that comes in between Murray and Wynter (his earnestness doesn’t help much to convince, though her expressive eyes convey a measureof depth that the dialogue otherwise rushes). Cagney project vets Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts (White Heat) worked off Marian Thompson’s adaptation of a 1934 novel by Rearden Conner.
A prime supporting cast deliver the goods on their end: Glynis Johns (excellent as a forthrightly sexy barmaid), Michael Redgrave (in a disguised version of the historical Michael Collins), Sybil Thorndike, Cyril Cusack, John Breslin, Richard Harris (28 in his movie debut, here a two-gun brandishing rowdy), Robert Brown, John Cairney, Allan Cuthbertson, Donal Donnelly, John Le Mesurier and Niall MacGinnis. Earning respectful reviews and $2,790,000, it nestled at spot #88 for the year.
* Composer Alwyn recalled: “On a shiveringly cold day while on film location in the Wicklow Hills, I sheltered in a ditch with James Cagney. The tough gangster actor whiled away the time by singing Irish folk songs and ballads for me in the traditional manner of the Irish folk singer, drawing on a seemingly inexhaustible memory. These were taught to him by his grandmother during his childhood on the New York East-side. The native ear survived the Atlantic crossing.”