The conflict in Ireland has provided the backdrop for a number of quality movies over the years, and I’ve covered a few of them on this site: Odd Man Out & The Gentle Gunman. Those two films dealt mainly with the smaller mid-century campaigns in Northern Ireland or around the border. Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) steps a little further back to the early 20s and the War of Independence, concentrating on the south of the country. The “Tan War”, so named after the involvement of the British irregulars recruited to strengthen the RIC, remains an emotive subject in Ireland due to the atrocities perpetrated against the civilian population. I can clearly remember people of my grandparents’ generation, who lived through those turbulent and violent times, speaking with undisguised venom about the Tans. The film under examination here reflects that hostility, but doesn’t shy away from depicting the implacable fanaticism that characterized some elements within the Irish rebel movement at that time either.
The prologue makes it clear that the Ireland of 1921 was a country in a state of war. The opening then takes place in a Dublin cemetery where a solemn funeral procession makes its way along paths lined with tombstones. Suddenly, a squad of Black and Tans appear and the cortege scatters amid the jarring sound of gunfire, leaving behind an upturned coffin spilling its load of rifles. This brief scene succinctly illustrates the nature of the war being fought: a covert organization facing off against a determined and ruthless enemy. The most interesting films dealing with the Irish conflict feature those caught somewhere in the middle, dragged into the fighting in spite of themselves. Kerry O’Shea (Don Murray) is such a man, an Irish-American studying medicine in Dublin in fulfillment of his late mother’s wishes. O’Shea happens to be visiting his parents’ grave when the Tans’ raid takes place, and he will find himself drawn deeper into the war as the story progresses. O’Shea’s father had been an old-time republican and he had fought in WWI himself; as such, we see a young man who has had his fill of killing. Still, circumstances don’t always allow a man to follow the path he would prefer – sometimes just being in the wrong place at the wrong time alters the course of a life. This is what occurs with O’Shea; he is walking along a street when an IRA ambush leads to the shooting of his friend and the subsequent leaving behind of his notebook at the scene during his flight from the violence. A direct consequence of this is the revelation that O’Shea’s lecturer and eminent surgeon Sean Lenihan (James Cagney) is a commandant in the IRA. As O’Shea, now regarded as a suspected terrorist, goes on the run, the combination of the brutality of the Black and Tans and the fact that Lenihan once saved his father convinces the young student that his place is standing shoulder to shoulder with the rebels. Yet despite O’Shea’s belief in the essential nobility of his cause, he becomes increasingly disturbed by the harsh, fanatical side of Lenihan. This feeling of unease is further strengthened when Lenihan’s customary dislike for and distrust of women is magnified after the taking of an important hostage; Jennifer Curtis (Dana Wynter), the daughter of a high British official, is abducted in reprisal for the imprisonment of an elderly republican sympathizer. Lenihan’s near pathological hatred of the young woman, and his keenness to see her executed, may prove the ultimate test of O’Shea’s loyalty.
Politically, Shake Hands with the Devil wears its heart on its sleeve, and makes no bones about its critical appraisal of the role of the Black and Tans in Ireland. The Tans are explicitly cast as the villains of the piece, their commander being portrayed as a quasi-fascist figure with a strong sadistic streak. The way O’Shea’s interrogation and beating is photographed, in a highly subjective manner, emphasizes the cold brutality of his tormentor. However, if there is a sustained effort to romanticize the rebels – most notable in the characterizations of Cyril Cusack, Michael Redgrave and Sybil Thorndike – it needs to be pointed out that we’re not looking at a whitewash job either. The internal discipline mechanisms of the IRA are shown in all their toughness, and the unyielding aspect of what would become the anti-Treaty forces – as represented by Cagney – is one of the major themes of the film.
Michael Anderson was a director capable of great visual flair – I’ve commented in the past on the Hitchcock-style touches present in a couple of his films – and Shake Hands with the Devil offers further evidence of his eye for interesting compositions. Aside from having a knack for capturing the correct mood, he staged and shot the action sequences very fluidly. The early part of the movie was shot on location in a mean and moody Dublin, all expressionistic shadows and dripping in noir atmosphere. Later, the action moves out of the city to Bray and the coast, and again Anderson, aided by cameraman Erwin Hillier, makes the most of the windswept seaboard. The use of the lighthouse, where the rebels have set up a makeshift headquarters, gives a nice claustrophobic feel to the scenes where Dana Wynter is held captive. Generally, the authentic locations contribute to the sense of realism and, while the script does meander a little in the middle, Anderson’s assured and inventive direction holds the attention throughout.
What can one say about James Cagney? From gangster to song and dance man, and just about everything in between, he was and remains one of the greatest Hollywood stars ever. Shake Hands with the Devil was one of his last films before entering a retirement that he refused to be persuaded out of for over twenty years. The film saw him surrounded by top class performers and expert scene stealers, yet it’s Cagney who carries it and he’s the one who sticks in your mind. The tough little New York Irish pug had been strutting and swaggering across the screen for thirty years by that time and his presence was such that it positively demanded you sit up and pay attention. He was always an actor capable of great intensity, although there was always a liberal sprinkling of charm and humor just below the surface too, and he honed and perfected that quality over the years. The part of Sean Lenihan gave Cagney a chance to flex his not inconsiderable acting muscles; it’s a complex role where the character alternates between a sympathetic, gutsy figure and a dangerous obsessive with deep and dark personal issues.
Cagney was certainly the name at the top of the bill, but there was a long list of talented and big name performers filling the other roles. Michael Redgrave was credited simply as The General, a character who seems to have been based on the real life Michael Collins. Aside from a moment of ruthlessness, Redgrave imbues this man with a sense of dignity, nobility, and just the appropriate touch of tragedy. There’s also an excellent turn from Cyril Cusack as the poet turned revolutionary who befriends the lead; it’s a thoughtful performance and a pivotal one, anchoring the film and acting as a bridge between the driven Cagney and the more reluctant Murray. Frankly, Don Murray was handed something of a thankless task when he had to square off against such a battery of talent. Having said that, Murray is good enough and, while he hadn’t the same depth of experience as some of his co-stars, acquits himself very well indeed. Richard Harris would of course go on to great things and his part as one of the more thuggish and self-absorbed rebels was an early opportunity to show what he was capable of. As for the women, Glynis Johns and Dana Wynter have the meatiest parts. Johns was the loose and brassy barmaid while Wynter was the demure and well-bred gentlewoman. Both actresses were convincing and quite touching in these contrasting roles, coaxing the best and worst from the male characters. As has already been stated, the supporting players in this movie makes for impressive reading: Sybil Thorndike, Niall MacGinnis, Harry H Corbett, William Hartnell, Ray McAnally, John Le Mesurier, Allan Cuthbertson and Noel Purcell.
Shake Hands with the Devil is available on DVD in the UK via Metrodome. The film is presented in Academy ratio, which can’t be right for a 1959 production. I did try zooming to around 1.66:1 at a number of points and the image generally looked fine so I guess we’re looking at an open matte transfer here. Leaving aside the matter of the aspect ratio, the transfer isn’t bad in other respects – print damage is minimal and contrast levels and sharpness all look acceptable. The only extra features on the disc are a handful of trailers for other Metrodome releases. Regular visitors to this site will be aware that I try to highlight movies that aren’t always widely acclaimed. Naturally, some are of better quality than others and I feel comfortable in asserting that Shake Hands with the Devil really is something of a forgotten gem. It’s an interesting film from a historical perspective, focusing on a conflict and period that doesn’t get a lot of attention. Michael Anderson’s smooth direction is very attractive with the imagery frequently reminiscent of film noir. Add in some excellent acting and complex characterization, especially from Cagney, and we’re talking about a first-rate thriller.