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In 1921 Dublin, the IRA battles the "Black & Tans," special British forces given to harsh measures. Irish-American medical student Kerry O'Shea hopes to stay aloof, but saving a wounded friend gets him outlawed, and inexorably drawn into the rebel organization...under his former professor Sean Lenihan, who has "shaken hands with the devil" and begun to think of fighting as an end in itself. Complications arise when Kerry falls for a beautiful English hostage, and the British offer a peace treaty that is not enough to satisfy Lenihan. Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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James Cagney was a versatile American motion picture star who could shift from playing the most ruthless movie gangster 'The Public Enemy,' himself to the amiable and patriotic all American song and dance man George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy and to the macabre Lon Chaney in The Man of a 1000 Faces. Cagney took these three faces and melded them together into the creation of the character of Dr Sean Lenihan , the protagonist in the film adaptation of Riordan Conner's novel Shake Hands With The Devil.
Riordan Conner the son of the last chief of the Royal Irish Constabulary knew the tactics and strategies of the revolutionaries but not the revolutionaries themselves. The Conner novel ambles between high Victorian Gothic intrigue and an over-drawn O'Henry morality tale. It is easy by the end to see how at the conclusion of the war Conner could not decide between Ireland or England.
Cagney had no difficulty in such a decision. The character he made of Dr Lenihan has many strange twists.
As a tough guy Cagney wasn't just a tough heavyweight; he had the invincible attitude of an all-star boxer, but like General Patton, a real life tough-guy, Cagney was taken to write poetry off-set. Out of the spotlight, Cagney was tacit and introspective as reflected in one of his poems:
Why do you weep poor old man? It hurts me when you weep. I weep for the long lost wonderful years I once thought were mine to keep.
Lenihan lives up to almost all aspects of the lovable bad-guy. A medical professor and surgeon by day, Lenihan converts under cover of darkness to a fierce, demoniacally inspired terrorist willing to do anything: murder, kidnapping and reprisal.
"There are no hymns for the dead in a street war," Lenihan tells the American medical student who has come under the protection of the Rebels.
And the real James Cagney knew not a little about war on the street. Born on July, 17, 1899 in modest circumstances in New York City's "gas house district," Cagney grew up in the upper East side, then a tough neighborhood. Cagney bragged that several of his playmates met their end at Sing-Sing Prison. Lest you think the Cagneys were as dirt poor as Hollywood propagandists portray, James attended both High School and briefly College. Cagney's brother became a medical doctor in a time in which about one-half of all Americans finished 6th Grade.
His brother's influence is apparent in Shake Hands with The Devil. As Dr Lenihan, Cagney has all the mannerisms, arrogance and power of command of a doctor.
Graduating from prestigious Stuyvesant High School, Cagney briefly studied art at Columbia University until a friend told him of a job in a vaudeville show. His break came with the part of "Little Red" in the staging of Maxwell Anderson's play "Outside Looking In." His film debut came when Cagney was cast in "Penny Arcade." When Warner Bros. bought the movie rights, Cagney was given the opportunity to star in the film version entitled 'Sinner's Paradise.'
Tapped for "The Public Enemy" (1931), Cagney created the gangster film genre in his memorable role as vicious gunman totally without conscience but not without an element of the romantic. The Cagney imprint on the bad guy persona was a twist of the tough know-it-all braggart yet with an enchanting, if not, likable streak. Over 38 crime and action dramas or comedies followed. Some like the "The Public Enemy" and the morality tale "Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938) became genre classics.
Shake Hands With The Devil breathed some life into Riordan Conner's tale of the hours of hiding interspersed by running gun battles by acknowledging the criminal facet of an irregular army fighting wholly outside conventions, neither giving nor expecting quarter.
And Cagney's doctor sent into hiding is full of interesting surprises for a man of medicine who professes a love of peace. Dr Lenihan becomes so entranced by war that he must be sacrificed by his comrades to accomplish the prisoner exchange which will end the conflict.
Yet if Cagney plays Dr Lenihan persuasively, he in his private life was all-American. In the 1940s, the Roosevelt democrat turned conservative, Cagney played in many US sponsored World War II propaganda films including "Yankee Doodle Dandy," based on the life of the American patriotic composer George M. Cohan. Like Cohan, Cagney would receive the US's highest civilian decoration---The Medal of Freedom---for his performance. In 1961 Cagney celebrated the height of Pax Americana in his bravura performance in "One, Two, Three," filmed on location in West Berlin.
Do not think of Cagney as the ugly US-er. Cagney was unassuming. Richard Harris said of Cagney:
"My first film (Shake Hands with the Devil) was with James Cagney. He arrived in Dublin with no bodyguards, secretaries or hair stylists. Just himself and his suitcases."
Shake Hands With The Devil has been subject to many criticisms. Yet the diabolical portrait of a revolutionary James Cagney painted in Shake Hands stands as a haunting reminder than neither icons ensconced in stone nor words strung or sung whether in flowery resolutions or fancy declarations won a war for independence or any other armed conflict.
Triumph in wars of independence brings with it tragedy but Shake Hands, notwithstanding its eloquence, does suffer from an important historical lapse. The martyr in the Irish Cause came from the pro-peace faction.
A true patriot to the end, James Cagney died on the 70th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion in 1986, at his farm in Stanfordville, New York. His credits include innumerable films, a Best Actor Oscar, and Presidency of the Screen Actors Guild.
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