1959 (January 4, 2022)
United Artists / MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/program category: B+
- Video Note: B
- Audio quality: B
- Additional Rank: VS
Located in Dublin in 1921, shake hands with the devil stars James Cagney as an Irish professor practicing and teaching surgery during the bloody conflict between Britain and Ireland. American veteran and medical student Kerry O’Shea (Don Murray, Bus stop), studying in Ireland under the famed Professor Lenihan (Cagney), is embroiled in the violent struggle between the Irish Republican Army and the British mercenaries known as the Black and Tans. Kerry repeatedly refuses pleas from his comrades to join their secret IRA cell, claiming he has seen enough bloodshed in World War I.
When her good friend Paddy Nolan (Ray McAnally) is shot by the British, Kerry sees that only an expert surgeon can save Paddy’s life. Professor Lenihan shows up and it turns out he’s also a ringleader of the IRA, a Jekyll/Hyde character who saves lives as a surgeon but doesn’t hesitate to suffocate them when it advances the cause. Burning with rage, he will show no mercy and accept no compromise until Ireland becomes a republic.
After witnessing numerous atrocities committed by the brutal British occupiers known as the Black and Tans, and being himself imprisoned and wrongfully tortured by a sadistic officer, Kerry steps up to the cause. Still, he’s torn between the justice of the cause and the ruthless methods employed to achieve his goals, so there’s an attempt to see both sides of the issue, though the script is definitely skewed in favor of the IRA.
An elderly woman, Lady Fitzhugh (Sybil Thorndike), is arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for abetting the escape of an IRA fugitive. In protest, she goes on a hunger strike. Lenihan thinks that by kidnapping Jennifer Curtis (Dana Wynter, Invasion of the Body Thieves), daughter of a British dignitary, an exchange of prisoners can be carried out.
Although Cagney received first place, Don Murray is actually the leader. His character’s hesitation at first is understandable, since World War I saw millions of people die not only from gunfire, but also from infections. We accept that he no longer wants to participate in more violence. But Murray is a lighthearted actor who offers little nuance in his performance. He never seems engaged in the story, a spectator of his own film.
Cagney, while not very credible as a surgeon, is excellent as the leader of the IRA. Tough, dedicated and ready to do anything to get rid of the Brits, Lenihan is a force to be reckoned with. His men are loyal, rallied by his strength and courage. Unafraid to risk his life, Lenihan has tunnel vision. Nothing is as important as the cause, and that is its Achilles heel. In the grip of such incendiary political passion, he is no longer a freedom fighter, but a quasi-mechanical agent of destruction.
Director Michael Anderson (Around the world in 80 days) filmed shake hands with the devil locally in Ireland. Cagney’s performance carries the image. He’s terrific, and he infuses Lenihan’s character with elements of the gangster roles he played in Warner Bros films of the 1930s and 1940s. Top-notch supporting performances from Cyril Cusack, Michael Redgrave, Glynis Johns and Richard Harris add to the appeal of the film.
Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts’ screenplay, based on the novel by Rearden Conner, clearly depicts the enmity between the IRA and the Black and Tans, but gives little backstory to illuminate the causes of this hatred. A budding romance between Kerry and Jennifer is completely contrived and seems nailed to please female audience members. The action scenes graphically show bombings and killings.
shake hands with the devil was shot by cinematographer Erwin Hillier on black and white 35mm film, photochemically finished and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray is from a master 2K. The interiors feature deep shadows on the sets and often obscure half of the characters’ faces, providing an eerie look. An outdoor night scene features shimmering cobblestone streets that have been coated with water to reflect light and cast dramatic highlights. A beach scene and a hilltop culminating scene take place under an overcast sky with no hint of sunshine. The blacks aren’t as deep and rich as in other Blu-ray releases of older movies, tending to look a little washed out. The women are beautifully lit, giving their complexions a warm glow.
Audio is included in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio. SDH English subtitles are an available option. The dialogue is clear and precise from start to finish. Of the Irish characters, only Cagney and Harris speak with a brogue. Sound effects include explosions and gunshots. The sound mix is particularly effective in a dock scene, in which dialogue, ambient noise and the sound of a crane loading luggage are well mixed together. William Alwyn’s score adds excitement to the action scenes and is used sparingly throughout the rest of the film, intervening only occasionally to emphasize dramatic moments.
Bonus materials include the following:
- Interview with Don Murray (8:21)
- Trailer (2:17)
- Never steal anything small (1:57)
- The gallant hours (2:50)
- One two Three (2:11)
- No highway in the sky (2:10)
Murray discusses his theatrical career and notes that he was offered a number of film roles but did not accept any until he was offered Bus stop against Marilyn Monroe. He discusses the method acting style, in which the actor experiences the emotions felt by the character. Michael Anderson wasn’t too specific in his direction; he set up the stage and left the actors their creative freedom. It was great to work with James Cagney, who belonged to “the old school of acting”. Offstage, between takes, Cagney danced to keep in shape. The firearms used in the film had to be carefully returned so that they did not end up in the hands of the IRA. Some Britons were unhappy with the film because it was pro-IRA. Murray concludes the interview with the comment, “It was a very satisfying experience.”
shake hands with the devil is a career-ending success for James Cagney. Intense and filled with indignant rage, it commands the screen. Although good in itself, the film would be less interesting without its presence. It’s great to see a master show his art. He’s as good in this movie as he was years earlier in white heat Where public enemy. Our view of terrorism in the wake of 9/11 may have dulled sympathy for Lenihan and his followers, but the film still works as an action/political thriller.