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SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL(director: Michael Anderson; screenwriters: from the novel by Rearden Conner/Marian Spitzer; cinematographer: Erwin Hillier; editor: Gordon Pilkington; music: William Alwyn; cast: James Cagney (Sean Lenihan), Don Murray (Kerry O’Shea), Dana Wynter (Jennifer Curtis), Glynis Johns (Kitty Brady), Michael Redgrave (The General), Sybil Thorndike (Lady Fitzhugh), Cyril Cusack (Chris Noonan), Christopher Rhodes (Col. Smithson), Alan White (Capt. Fleming), Ray McAnally (Paddy Nolan), Clive Morton (Sir Arnold Fielding); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Michael Anderson; United Artists; 1959-UK/USA)
“A good intro into the conflict between England and the IRA.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Marian Thompson adapts Reardon Conner’s novel for the screen and Michael Anderson directs this spellbinding action-packed political film about the complexities of the 1921 Irish Rebellion against their British rulers. It’s filmed on location in Ireland, which adds to its authentic feel. Its big problem is that even though the story is riveting, the acting is first-rate (some of the supporting characters are from the famed Dublin’s Abbey Players and James Cagney gives a maddening fiery performance), the film is well-crafted, and there’s no question that it caught the disturbing chaos of that time period, there’s still a question about its dubious political content.

During the ongoing strife with the IRA the regular British army is replaced by the “Black & Tans,” a special British force that is given to using violent means to fight the violent rebels, under the irresolute and punitive leadership of Colonel Smithson (Christopher Rhodes). The IRA is headed by the General (Michael Redgrave), a politically savvy man, who views violence as a means to an end. The field commander is, believe it or not, a mild-mannered on the outside surgeon and professor at the medical college, someone known as the Commandant, Sean Lenihan (James Cagney), but who is burning inside with rage and believes in no compromise until Ireland becomes a republic and that violence is an end rather than a means. The political message seems muddled as the terrorists, except for the fanatical Sean, are seen as the good guys, while all the Brits are smeared as usurpers and power-hungry enforcers who wish only to suppress the common Irish citizen. You would think there are good blokes as well as meanies on both sides, and the deck should not be so stacked against the occupiers; even though, their suppression of freedom cannot be condoned nor should the freedom fighters desire for violence. It’s something the film tried to spit out, but missed the boat in clearly stating such an opinion.

At theDublin medical collegeKerry O’Shea (Don Murray), an Irish-born American veteran of the First World War and son of Sean’s deceased patriotic Irish comrade in the underground movement, is in Sean’s class studying to be a doctor. Kerry refuses to get involved in the cause, and is attending an Irish medical school on the promise he made his deceased mom. When Kerry’s best friend and classmate Paddy Nolan gets gunned down on the street and Kerry has to run for cover to escape the soldiers, even though both students are innocent of a bomb attack on the soldiers, Kerry gets radicalized on-the-spot. He’s soon taken to the country hiding place of the IRA by the Commandant and given two choices–take the oath to join the organization knowing he could never leave or wait for arrangements to come through to return to America. Kerry chooses to stay and gets caught up in an incident that lands him in the slammer, as he’s accused of possessing a Britsh army pistol that killed a soldier after the elderly silver-haired Lady Fitzhugh (Sybil Thorndike) was arrested for abetting the escape of an IRA fugitive. Sean succeeds in busting Kerry out of jail in a daring escape plan and then has his men kidnap the widowed daughter of an important British politician, Jennifer Curtis (Dana Wynter), holding her as trade bait for Lady Fitzhugh. Because Kerry was severely beaten by Smithson in his questioning session, Sean plans to ambush him as payback. As the violence continues, a truce is offered which means a compromise not completely satisfying either side but nevertheless bringing about a peace. The general is willing to sign that treaty with the Brits, but the Commandant is not satisfied with a free Ireland if it’s still under British rule and vows to continue the violence. In the meantime, Kerry has fallen in love with the pretty hostage and vows he will not let Sean kill her if Lady Fitzhugh dies.

The film is a good intro into the raging conflict between England and the IRA, but is too ambiguous to carry more weight than being a solid entertaining film that leaves us with a limited understanding of why so much bloodshed and enmity.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”