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.

The Naked Edge


I guess it’s inevitable that cinema, like most any form of artistic expression, will be influenced by the body of work that already exists. Remakes, reimaginings and homages seem to have been with us forever, and one figure who’s arguably been imitated more than any other is Alfred Hitchcock. Both the stories he was drawn to and the filming techniques that he frequently employed have been referenced so many times that there’s a subgenre of “Hitchcock style” thrillers. The Naked Edge (1961) may not be all that well-known but it certainly belongs in that category. Of course, as with most (all?) imitations, it fails to live up to the standards of the movies it alludes to – once a filmmaker sets out on this path he necessarily sacrifices a lot of his own individuality. Still, that doesn’t mean that the movie in question can’t be entertaining in its own right; after all, half the fun for the viewer comes from recognizing the source of inspiration.

The pre-credits sequence opens proceedings in lurid fashion with a murder – a businessman taking a knife to the guts – and hurls the viewer right into the action. There follows a trial where the evidence of George Radcliffe (Gary Cooper), an American resident in London, appears instrumental in securing the conviction of Donald Heath (Ray McAnally) for the murder of their boss and the accompanying theft of the firm’s money. Heath, naturally perhaps, protests his innocence and Radcliffe hastily exits the emotive atmosphere of Old Bailey with his former colleague’s accusations of treachery ringing in his ears. Even at this early stage, the clouds of suspicion are gathering around Radcliffe; the unrecovered loot, his talk of suddenly acquired wealth and an edgy encounter with a disbarred solicitor (Eric Portman) initially stir doubts. Jump forward six years and we find Radcliffe now heading a successful partnership and clearly wealthy. However, it’s only when a long-lost blackmail letter is delivered to his wife that we get to the nub of the matter. Radcliffe’s wife, Martha (Deborah Kerr), may have harboured a few mild suspicions before, but the letter that explicitly accuses her husband of murdering his employer and using the stolen money to finance his own business plants a particularly stubborn seed. A combination of apparent evasiveness by Radcliffe when asked any questions about the murder and subsequent trial and some downright suspicious behaviour on his part cause Martha’s doubts to grow. The deeper she delves into the past, the more convinced she becomes that the full truth may not have come out in court. With her marriage starting to crumble in this sea of distrust, it gradually dawns on Martha that her own life may be in jeopardy too.


A few years earlier, Michael Anderson had directed another “woman in peril” picture – Chase a Crooked Shadow – and in my review of that I commented on his tendency to indulge in some self-conscious effects. The Naked Edge was clearly trying to tap into a Hitchcock vibe (the poster prominently highlights the involvement of Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano), and Anderson’s direction makes use of countless low angle shots and zooms. Of course, this isn’t an especially bad thing as we’re treated to some nicely composed shots that accentuate the tension. The climax, where preparations are meticulously laid for an attempt on Martha’s life, consists of a whole series of well-judged shots cut together expertly. Where the film does become overly derivative, and indeed contrived, is in the poor handling of the dialogue. It reaches the point where I found myself imagining the writers sitting around and scratching their heads over how they could mangle the words a bit more to ensure the ambiguity of Radcliffe’s character was rammed home. I feel a lighter touch would have sufficed.

Cooper’s performance in the lead contains enough of the man’s own natural diffidence and reserve to get the job done satisfactorily. This was Coop’s last screen role and, even if he doesn’t look exactly ill, he does exude an air of age and weariness. In all honesty, I generally find it difficult to watch performances from actors when I know they hadn’t long to live afterwards – it’s even harder when the person is someone whose work I’ve grown to admire. Whenever Cooper talks about safeguarding his future I can’t help but get that hollow, sinking sensation. In the role of Martha, Deborah Kerr was handed what was really the pivotal role; she’s the one from whose perspective the unfolding events are seen. In order for the viewer to retain doubts it was necessary for Kerr to convincingly portray a woman who could never be quite sure of anything herself. I think she managed that, never allowing histrionics to overwhelm her character and thus alienate the audience. For the most part, the supporting roles are fairly small yet highly memorable. No-one possessing even a passing familiarity with British cinema of the period  could fail to be impressed by a cast list that features: the aforementioned Eric Portman and Ray McAnally, Peter Cushing, Michael Wilding, Wilfrid Lawson, Diane Cilento, Hermione Gingold and Joyce Carey to name but a few.

The Naked Edge is out on DVD in the UK from Cornerstone/Palladium. The film is letterboxed (not anamorphic) at about 1.66:1, which would fit a film of this vintage. The transfer is generally good and fairly clean, although I did notice at least one cue blip. There is a certain softness to the image at times and the black levels are decidedly on the grey side. While I wouldn’t term it a displeasing transfer, it could stand some improvement too – even so, it’s never less than watchable. There are no subtitles offered and no extras. So, how do I rate it as a movie? As I’ve already said, the whole “woman coming to distrust a suspicious husband” storyline invites obvious comparisons with Hitchcock; Anderson’s direction throughout only compounds that, and there’s a short sequence that replicates one of Hitch’s more heavily criticised ploys. On the whole though, I think the film is generally successful in keeping the atmosphere tense and the viewer guessing. Let’s call this a cautious recommendation.


Chase a Crooked Shadow


Throughout the 60s Hammer produced a smattering of what have come to be referred to as “mini-Hitchcocks”, due to the acknowledged influence of Psycho. Broadly speaking, these movies usually featured a damsel-in-distress plot where all was not quite as it seemed at first glance. While it’s undeniable that Hitchcock’s 1960 shocker played a significant part in bringing about these films it seems to me that they also owe something to Michael Anderson’s 1958 suspenser Chase a Crooked Shadow: there’s a small cast, an isolated and endangered woman with a question mark over her psychological state, and men whose motives and loyalties are not always clear.

Kim Prescott (Anne Baxter) is a wealthy heiress living in a sprawling villa in Spain. Her father was a victim of suicide and her brother has perished in a road accident in South Africa – or so it would appear. After a late night gathering at the villa, when all the guests have departed, a stranger turns up claiming to be the brother back from the dead. Ward Prescott (Richard Todd) alleges that he was turned over by a guy he gave a lift to, and that the thief was the one who died in the smash-up. Kim remains unconvinced, determinedly so in fact, and calls in the police. Vargas (Herbert Lom), the local police chief, can find nothing wrong with Ward’s credentials and is powerless to do anything. Within a disconcertingly short period of time, Ward has taken up residence in the villa, hired his own new staff, and is causing Kim to question her mental state. She maintains both her hostility and her disbelief yet is unable to convince anyone else that this man in her house is an impostor. The viewer is left to wonder who is telling the truth and, if Ward is indeed merely an impersonator, what the purpose of the subterfuge and masquerade is. There are plenty of clues and red herrings sprinkled throughout, but it’s not until the very end that everything is revealed – all I’ll just say is that it’s unwise to jump to any premature conclusions.

Hot rocks - Richard Todd in Chase a Crooked Shadow.

Director Michael Anderson brings Chase a Crooked Shadow in at a tight 84 minutes and judges the pace well. The plot never has a chance to sag and there are some nicely staged sequences – in particular, there’s a well shot and hair-raising scene involving a high speed race around a picturesque mountain road with precipitous drops flashing into view. Anderson does indulge in a bit of flashiness here and there: low angle shots and some slightly self-conscious focusing on foreground objects (like the screencap above), but they generally serve to add to the suspense and feeling of unease. Aside from the twisty plotting, the film depends heavily on the performances of the three leads, and they hold up well. Both Richard Todd and Anne Baxter bring an ambiguous quality to their respective characters which this kind of “is he or isn’t he” drama calls for. Baxter is just brittle enough as the woman under pressure and avoids descending into hammy histrionics. The recently deceased Richard Todd was always a solid performer and his inherent reserve is used to good effect to keep the viewer guessing. In contrast, Herbert Lom’s policeman plays the anchor role in a movie where no one else can really be trusted. It’s not a showy part in any way, but it is a vital one as it helps provide a necessary point of reference.

Chase a Crooked Shadow is available on DVD in the UK via Optimum, and it’s not a bad transfer. The image is 1.33:1, although 1.66:1 would seem a more likely ratio for British movies of the period, and is quite clear and detailed. There are vertical lines and scratches that appear intermittently all the way through, and the blacks could be a little blacker at times. However, none of this is seriously distracting and shouldn’t count heavily against the transfer. Once again Optimum have added nothing to the disc, no subs and no trailer but it can be bought very cheap. This is the kind of movie that’s very appealing to those who enjoy tense British thrillers and it’s a highly competent production. Anyone familiar with the Hammer movies I alluded to at the beginning will recognise the parallels – but that’s no bad thing.