Shake Hands With the Devil (1959)

Shake Hands With the Devil (1959)

“In time you’ll come to believe as we do. We’re not fighting faces — we’re fighting uniforms, row after row, standing between Ireland and freedom; remember that.”

An Irish-American medical student (Don Murray) studying in 1921 Dublin becomes unwittingly involved with members of the IRA, which turns out to be led by one of his professors (James Cagney). Tensions become even higher when Cagney discovers that a sympathetic barmaid (Glynis Johns) has been consorting with his men, and when the daughter (Dana Wynter) of a British advisor is kidnapped in retaliation for the imprisonment of a local noblewoman (Sybil Thorndike).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Don Murray Films
  • Glynis Johns Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Ireland
  • James Cagney Films
  • Kidnapping
  • Michael Redgrave Films
  • Niall MacGinnis Films
  • Revolutionaries

James Cagney gives a fine later-in-life performance in this effectively told tale of the Irish Republican Army battling the Black and Tans.

While Murray isn’t exactly a charismatic protagonist, he’s sufficient as a player in the broader context of Ireland’s underground fight for independence.

Erwin Hillier’s cinematography is highly atmospheric throughout, showcasing a world in which revolutionary operations must necessarily take place in shadowy spaces:

… and the possibility of violence is ever-present.

Cagney’s character is gradually revealed to be a diehard fanatic for his cause, which comes with a cost — particularly as his prejudice against women plays out and becomes his eventual undoing.

Johns is excellent in a supporting but pivotal role as a barmaid eager to stay involved:

… and Wynter is quietly effective as a kidnapped woman who recognizes the power of her beauty and intelligence to (potentially) influence outcomes.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Highly atmospheric cinematography
  • James Cagney as Sean Lenihan
  • Glynis Johns as Kitty Brady

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a one-time look, especially if you’re interested in this period of history.


One thought on “Shake Hands With the Devil (1959)

  1. First viewing. A once-must – for its place in both cinema history & Irish history.

    ~ otherwise, I’m in agreement with the accurate assessment given. Of course, one can’t depend on a single film re: the cause of the Irish Republican Party (although there are other films covering the subject, i.e., ‘Odd Man Out’) and one would have to supplement with reading for a deeper understanding. But this film (aside from the moment here and there that plays like a Hollywood movie) generally reads as credible and it’s films like this that attest to the value of keeping the memory of historical struggles alive.

    The cast is commendable and DP Hillier’s work is particularly effective.

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