Cagney had no difficulty in such a decision. A new character Dr Sean
Lenihan was created as the mentor for the medical student. And the
character 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
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
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, demonically 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 James Francis Cagney, Jr. 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 studied art
at Columbia University until his father died in the 1918 influenza
epidemic. Forced to withdraw from school, Cagney worked in a department
store until a friend told him of a job in a vaudeville show called "Every
Sailor." A casting call for chorus boys put Cagney in his first Broadway
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, likeable 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
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. (Foreignors rarely get an
opportunity to meet real Americans, except in combat.) 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, like the later film Michael Collins did
better at the box offices in Ireland's enemy than in America. In a
sarcastic review, the Establishment's semi official orifice, The New York
Times commented that while it were possible for the Irish to produce
something other than lepraucauns, "no culture so steeped in romantic
failure and rigid Catholicism could ever truly conquer America."
The Times had not voiced such harsh criticism when New York’s own 69th
Infantry Regiment recruited in James Cagney’s old neighborhood in
Yorkville crashed through Nazi lines in 1944. Then The Times' air rang
with a different melody ---Onward Christian Soldier!
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 anyother 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.