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January 04, 2022

Shake Hands with the Devil

shake hands.jpg

Michael Anderson - 1959
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Even with a casual review of his filmography, it may be a surprise for some that at least one film critic thought Michael Anderson to be comparable to David Lean and Carol Reed following the release of his debut feature, Waterfront (1950). This was after Anderson had shared directing duties with Peter Ustinov on two earlier films. What I have been able to glean from the few films I have seen from Anderson's first decade is that these were the films where he put more effort into stylized visuals, but his greatest strength was allowing his actors room to create their own characters. Although he did a few more British productions sporadically from the 1960s onward, Shake Hand with the Devil might be viewed as a transitional work bridging Anderson's identity between films primarily produced for British viewers and his better known career as a Hollywood journeyman.

The film takes place in Ireland near the end of the Irish War of Independence in 1921. In our current time of sifting through "culture" and alll that entails, some may find Anderson's film to be a minefield. A story about Irish politics produced (indirectly) by Marlon Brando, with a British director working from a screenplay written by two Hollywood veterans, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, from the 1933 novel by the Irish Rearden Connor. Some purists may balk at the casting of Michael Redgrave, Sybil Thorndike, Glynis Johns and James Cagney instead of Irish actors in their respective roles. There is Don Murray, perfectly cast as the American medical student of Irish descent who finds himself caught in the turmoil. And while this might not have the classic status of John Ford's The Informer, Anderson's film does have the advantage of on location shooting in Ireland.

Don Murray, as an American World War I veteran, just wants to honor his parents by getting medical degree in Ireland. As sympathetic as he is to the cause of Irish independence, he has no interest in being involved with the Irish Republican Army. Almost shot by Black and Tans during a guerrilla skirmish, Murray discovers that his teacher, James Cagney is secretly a top I.R.A. leader. Initially planning to escape back to the U.S., Murray decides to join Cagney's I.R.A. squad, understanding that once he commits, he cannot choose to resign. The title may have its visual correlation when Murray shakes hands with Cagney. What I have read about Connor's novel suggests that the title is metaphorical, and that the Devil is the medical professor's misogyny, inflexible moral code that he also imposes on others, resulting in a lack of humanity.

Even though he is second billed, this is really Don Murray's film. There is a short, eight minute, interview with Murray that is part of this new blu-ray release. At age 92, Murray looks back at working with Anderson and several of the actors. One of names lower on the roster was Richard Harris, working on his second film. Murray's own best work was during his first decade, probably the least showy of method actors, with a career shifting between westerns and more socially conscious fare. I would not be able to say how authentic James Cagney's Irish accent is, but it did not strike me as calling attention to itself in the way associated with Irish characters in Hollywood movies. Glynis Johns charms as a pragmatic barmaid, while the regal Dana Wynter appears as daughter of a British diplomat, kidnapped by the I.R.A.

For a younger audience for whom the actors may be unknown, there is still the cinematography to be admired. Anderson gets visually stronger as the film progresses, working with favorite cinematographer Erwin Hillier. Hillier has been noted for his black and white cinematography, especially with several films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The blu-ray is sourced from a 2K restoration rendering very crisp deep focus images. Although Shake Hands with the Devil was reportedly a commercial success in Britain, the modestly budgeted film appears to have been given a half hearted release by United Artists in the U.S. The New York Times review by Howard Thompson noted the film opened as part of a double feature package in neighborhood theaters in the New York City area. Thompson own assessment begins, "One of the fastest, toughest and most picturesque dramas about the Irish Revolution . . . "

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 4, 2022 03:49 PM