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Shake Hands with the Devil
Difficult to classify, Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) is a historical drama set in 1921 Dublin, during the Irish War of Independence with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) at odds with the Black and Tan, ex-British soldiers tasked by the British crown with suppressing IRA soldiers and the civilian population generally. In one of his last film roles, James Cagney stars.
Made entirely on location in Ireland with a fine cast of American, Irish, and British actors but financed by Pennebaker Productions, actor Marlon Brando's company, the film is unusual in mostly supporting the Irish cause at a time such films were rare, and because its compromises to Hollywood convention and Production Code restrictions are few, at least until the very end, it sometimes cleverly implying more brutal violence than is actually shown. In one scene main character Kerry O'Shea (Don Murray) is viciously beaten while in custody, the interrogator wearing a pinky ring that, judging by his rescuers reactions, has turned his face into dog meat. Later, O'Shea is shown completely healed, but the brutally is effectively conveyed. (I wonder if in the original novel and/screenplay, O'Shea loses an eye in the beating.)
Apparently for years the only available version of the film was a video master that cropped off both sides of the frame. (It appears to have been released 1.66:1 hard-matted widescreen.) Kino's new Blu-ray, however, is a new 1.66:1 master that shows the film's excellent black-and-white photography (by Erwin Hillier, I Know Where I'm Going!, The Dam Busters) to full advantage.
American but Irish-born Kerry O'Shea (Murray) is a medical student at the College of Surgeons. Having fought during the Great War, O'Shea has had enough killing for one lifetime, but when his friend and classmate Paddy Nolan (Ray McAnally) is shot during a skirmish on the streets of Dublin, and O'Shea falls under suspicion having left a textbook with his name on it at the scene, he turns to his professor, Dr. Sean Lenihan (Cagney) to tend to the fatally wounded Paddy. Lenihan, it turns out, is a high-ranking leader of the IRA, known as "the Commandant."
Lenihan introduces O'Shea to his superior, "the General" (Michael Redgrave, his character obviously patterned after Michael Collins), as O'Shea's father fought alongside both older men. O'Shea, however, declines their invitation to join the IRA, so Lenihan has him taken to a remote, seaside hideout to await a boat that will smuggle O'Shea back to America.
There, O'Shea is ensconced with other wanted men, including philosophical poet-commander Chris Noonan (Cyril Cusack), Willie Lafferty (Donal Donnelly), and swaggering soldier Terence O'Brien (Richard Harris). Uninvited but frequently joining them is barmaid/prostitute Kitty Brady (Glynis Johns). Witnessing the brutal murder of an escaped IRA leader and the arrest of elderly Lady Fitzhugh (Sybil Thorndyke), in whose car's boot she had hidden the fugitive, O'Shea is himself arrested and badly beaten by Col. Smithson (Christopher Rhodes), though Lenihan and the others manage to rescue him.
When the defiant Lady Fitzhugh is convicted and sentenced to a long prison sentence, she goes on a hunger strike that will surely kill her within weeks. Lenihan plots the kidnapping of Jennifer Curtis (Dana Wynter), the daughter of a prominent English politician, hoping for a prisoner exchange with Lady Fitzhugh.
Shake Hands with the Devil is unusual, almost unique in its telling. The look suggests early film noir, or even ‘30s Warner Bros. gangster, with stark shadows and gritty use of Dublin's cobblestone streets. It doesn't play like a late-1950s British film, and definitely not like a Hollywood one, either. In some respects, its qualified pro-IRA stance (as it existed in the early 1920s, anyway) is mostly uncompromising yet shaded; it doesn't condone the acts of terrorism but doesn't outright reject it, either, Cagney's character arguing that it's the only possible response to flagrant British violations of basic human rights. It seems very contemporary in its historical fidelity (for the most part) and is complex and shaded in a way rare for 1950s from Hollywood or Britain.
Cagney, as he usually was, is superb. His Irish brogue seems on the mark, more so than several of the English actors such as Glynis Johns, whose accent never sounds quite right to my ears. Whenever he's onscreen, the movie audience is inclined to concentrate solely on Cagney's fine, subtle work here. The Irish actors, particularly Cyril Cusack, Donal Donnelly, Niall MacGinnis, and Harris (very good in what was only his second film role) are likewise excellent. In smaller roles, many familiar faces pop up for a scene or two, including Robert Brown, Harry H. Corbett, Allan Cuthbertson, John Le Mesurier, William Hartnell, and Noel Purcell.
Video & Audio
Kino's excellent transfer of Shake Hands with the Devil offers impressively crisp yet inky black monochrome photography, presented in 1.66:1 widescreen. The DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) is likewise strong. Optional English subtitles are provided on this Region "A" disc.
Supplements include a new interview with actor Don Murray. He has many interesting things to say about the production and fellow cast members, and at 92 appears in remarkably good health for his age, though clearly no longer up to suppressing ape-slave rebellions. A trailer is also included.
Riveting and featuring yet another great James Cagney performance, the unusual Shake Hands with the Devil is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.