Shake Hands with the Devil

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.


29 thoughts on “Shake Hands with the Devil

  1. Wonderful film review, Colin. I can tell, through your splendid written examination, that this film registers with you keenly. As a fan of Cagney, it had my interest before I started to look at your post. Now, I really want to screen this. Since I have a region-free player, and it’s not available over here, I’ll look to acquire the R2 disc, my friend. Many thanks for the heads up and enjoyable read, my friend..


    • Thanks very much Mike. Having grown up and spent my formative years in Northern Ireland during some of its darkest days, I do find myself drawn to films such as this. While Shake Hands with the Devil (and the others I mentioned in passing) may not resonate quite so strongly with others, we’re still talking about a very good movie. For whatever reason it doesn’t appear to be all that well known, so I’m pleased if I’ve encouraged you to give it a try.


        • I haven’t actually. Although I’m aware of them I never got round to any. Do you recommend them?

          You know, for a long time I avoided literature, and even films/TV to an extent, that dealt with “The Troubles” – I suppose subconsciously the whole thing was a little too close for me to view it dispassionately in entertainment terms. The passage of time does make a difference though – memories of seriously unpleasant stuff never truly fade though, just soften a little I guess – and I no longer have that reticence. I may give these a go if you think they’re worth a look.


          • I very much enjoy his writing — he now lives in Australia, I hear. I started reading him care of a recommendation by a friend, with early work that dealt with an Belfast expat in New York crime novel. Falling Glass was a great split-off from those novels. And later his Fifty Grand book was a stunner. His current trilogy, I’m two books in, is specifically occurring during ‘The Troubles’ and takes on the conflict in a way that reaches me, as an outsider. I find his Sean Duffy character interesting, but would be keen on hearing how others who lived through the period relate to it. I understand your reticence, though.


  2. I’m a huge Anderson fan (especially the 10 films he made with Hillier) but this is one that I missed – I must admit to a slight timidity on my part as I usually find these sorts of films either too partisan or too romantic / sentimental. ODD MAN OUT is one of the few truly exceptional works to deal with the subject, but then again the IRA doesn’t even get a name check. This sounds much, much better than I thought it would be – thanks Colin, I will definitely get this.


    • Yes, I quite understand that the subject matter can be off-putting for a lot of people for exactly the reasons you mention. However, I do think this film achieves enough balance overall and is at least worth checking out.

      I really like those Anderson/Hillier films too, and I’ve now covered a handful of them here. I hope to get round to The Quiller Memorandum at some point.


  3. Colin, I saw this a few years back and remember it as a powerful drama full of dark shadows and with a disturbing performance by Cagney. Your description of how the character alternates between sympathetic and obsessive is spot on. But the whole cast is excellent, with actors like Michael Redgrave and all the other names you mention here. Also, as you say, it is no whitewash job – the various motivations and actions spiral out of control in a believable way. It’s great to read this review with all the background knowledge that you bring to it – you make me want to see this again!


    • Thanks very much Judy. There’s a great cast and they all contribute nicely. Cagney is phenomenally good but he has great support around him.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the movie, and also that you’re keen to see it again.


  4. As usual, spot-on review. Thanks much!

    Rearden Conner’s novel, from the thirties, is far more unflinching in its treatment of the period. especially the Don Murray character. So brutal is the final chapter, dealing with the Murray character, that you can only read it once. In trying to re-read the novel a few years ago, I stopped half-way in, because I did not want to face that final chapter once more. A brilliant novel, and if you can lay your hands on it, I very much recommend it.

    I spent time with Michael Anderson several years ago. I asked him about the ending, about whether there had been any discussion on following the novel. He said that the original script had followed the novel. But Don Murray was being groomed for stardom and the powers-that-be demanded the final quarter of the script be altered. Cagney tried to help, but he was no longer considered an A-List star and the studio refused to budge. Anderson said it was frustrating, but typical Hollywood.

    The movie is still an excellent film.


    • And thank you John. That’s very interesting info there. It’s great to hear what Anderson thought, and the changes that were demanded. I’ve never read the novel but you’ve got me intrigued now and I’ll have to do a bit of research and see if I can locate a copy.


  5. Great review, Colin! This sounds like a fascinating film, with a really impressive cast. I’ve watched a few too many dark, depressing (and usually very well done) tales of the sad conflict in Ireland to be overly drawn to the subject matter, but I’m curious about this film both for Cagney’s involvement and that supporting cast. Pity that the DVD doesn’t seem to have been released in the correct aspect ratio, though the screencaps you provided do look quite atmospheric.


    • Yes Jeff, films focusing on this subject can be a bit of a downer so I quite understand the reluctance of lots of people to watch.
      Having said that, this is very well made and I can’t say I found it depressing myself.
      The current DVD isn’t perfect of course but it’s not a bad overall presentation, and it is possible to zoom in and get close to what would be a correct aspect ratio.


  6. Normally I only like to comment on films that are in my recent memory, I tend to avoid
    comments on films that I have never seen (SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL) or have not
    seen for several decades.
    However Colin, this is such an unusual choice I could not resist chipping in.
    Firstly I was not aware that this film had been released on DVD, so thanks for that Colin.
    Your review has made sure that this is one to track down despite being a 4×3 presentation.
    (Why do British DVD imprints keep doing this?)
    Why has this film been on the missing list for so long, well I understand that it was one of those
    Pennebaker Productions where the rights are in question. The most famous Pennebaker
    film in p.d. hell is of course ONE EYED JACKS.
    There is another interesting Ireland set thriller made around the same time also unreleased
    on DVD A TERRIBLE BEAUTY (aka THE NIGHT FIGHTERS) (1960) starring Robert Mitchum
    and Richard Harris directed by Tay Garnett. Film also stars the always watchable Dan O Herlihy
    a most interesting actor.
    One thing leads to another……….while we are talking Mitchum how come THE ANGRY HILLS
    co starring Stanley Baker is on the missing list.Film was directed by Robert Aldrich.
    While we are talking Aldrich how come TEN SECONDS TO HELL has not had a DVD release starring Jeff Chandler and Jack Palance. I could go on and on but enough already!
    Finally and even more off topic.if thats possible and speaking of Tay Garnett; Colin were
    you aware CATTLE KING has just been released by Llamentol in Spain.
    Its a Robert Taylor Western that might be of interest to you.
    I must say that Taylor does a lot more for the film than the film does for him.
    Its a flawed film to be sure with some really clunky plot developments but I still kinda like it;
    Taylor’s strong screen presence makes all the difference.


    • John, it sure makes a change for me to be talking about movies that are new to you. 🙂
      These rights issues can be a royal pain, and help deprive us of too many interesting pictures. Of the Mitchum films you mention I’d love to see A Terrible Beauty/The Night Fighters – what a cast!

      I did notice Cattle King is out in Spain – being a big fan of Taylor’s westerns, I’ll probably pick it up sooner or later. I also see The Man with a Cloak has just come out, and I’ve ordered both The Mask of Dimitrios and The Stand at Apache River.


    • CATTLE KING may not be so great but it does have one of the great opening lines, when bad guy Richard Devon proclaims “Let’s get this range war started!” So it’s worth a lot just for that. Also, it’s Tay Garnett’s last film. He’s definitely an interesting director. I’ve seen THE NIGHT FIGHTERS–one of his better ones. And re Aldrich, TEN SECONDS TO HELL is a very interesting movie too, probably more than THE ANGRY HILLS though neither one is negligible, even if Aldrich was at the time a little bit adrift after his great 1954-1956 period.

      I enjoyed reading about SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL, which I don’t remember well now. This piece made me interested to see it again sometime. Great cast, and I know I love at least one film by Michael Anderson. Of course it’s THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM with that beautiful script by Harold Pinter, and beautifully directed by Anderson too, the only one of all those mid-60s bleak spy movies that really holds up. I’ll be keen to read your piece on that when you write it, Colin.


      • As I said to John, I intend to get Cattle King at some point. And let’s keep our fingers crossed some of those other titles show up.

        I will do a piece on The Quiller Memorandum for sure but I’ll leave it for a bit of time. I’m actually on a bit of an espionage kick at the moment; having just reread Deighton’s Berlin Game, I’ve made a start on Mexico Set and will follow that up with London Match. I read the whole trilogy of Samson trilogies years ago but thought I’d give the first three a go again.


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  8. This movie is so dark, it’s rather hard to watch. Now, I’ll have to read the novel, because these comments about it are intriguing. Cagney is really good here. I like “White Heat” for it’s “over the topness” and Cagney is perfect as a psycho gangster – but he is a gangster and the viewer knows his mental problems from the beginning, so his insanity is not so surprising.
    But Lenihan is actually more believable, a person wouldn’t know just how fearsome this supposedly benevolent doctor and teacher really is as he embraces terrorism. He’s downright scary.
    Colin, I’ve mentioned it before in comments, but I look forward to the day you have a chance to see Cagney in “Tribute to a Bad Man”, where he is a cruel man who loves his horses.


    • I do remember your recommendation of Tribute to a Bad Man and I hope to catch up with the film as soon as I can.

      I agree too that the way the extent of Cagney’s ruthlessness is gradually revealed as we learn more about him adds a lot of power to this film.


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