Shake Hands With The Devil (1959)

This 1959 Irish War of Independence era movie can, with a certain amount of justification, be described as a forgotten classic. Directed by Michael Anderson (Dam Busters 1955) it touches on a time and a subject matter many film makers until Neil Jordan (Michael Collins, 1996) stayed away from.  I came to this film via my father who is a great fan of it and as a result we’ve been looking for a copy for a number of years. Now released on DVD I had to buy a copy and see what all the talk was about. I’m glad I did.  The leading and supporting casts are a who’s who of Irish and British acting talent of the time and subsequently.  As I mentioned the subject matter was one many stayed away from or used as a support to a more personal story (Ryan’s Daughter David Lean, 1970, which was more of a romance than war film).

Although shot in 1959 it shows little of the experimental film making beginning at that time in France and elsewhere with the early New Wave work or even  the earlier Italian Neo-realism. Anderson deploys methods tried and tested in the 1930’s and 1940’s and the movie feels like a product of this period in places, although it also has that more relaxed and expansive feel of its generation. Ryan’s Daughter is only 11 years later and totally different in style. We can also contrast it with Odd Man Out (1947) by Carol Reed (The Third Man, 1949) with an almost Noir feel in places, certainly far more atmospheric and brooding as we watch James Mason the IRA officer on the run in Belfast following a failed robbery.  Shake Hands used shadow sparingly  and to best effect in the early ambush scene where Paddy Nolan (Ray McAnally, The Mission, Altamirano, 1986) and Kerry O’Shea (Don Murray, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Breck, 1972) are walking home at night.  In many ways one of the more modern scenes in the movie.

The Movie is based on the novel by Rearden Conner, which was adapted by Marian Spitzer (The Dolly Sisters 1945) together with Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts  (White Heat, 1949) .  We can see novel’s influence in the detail and characterisation such as Lady Fitzhugh (Sybil Thorndike, The Prince and The Showgirl, The Queen Dowager, 1957) being a member of The Movement.  This characterisation is perhaps most striking in James Cagney’s character, Sean Lenihan; by day a mild mannered surgeon lecturing to students in Trinity College and by night a respected rebel leader (Commandant). It is in his reaction to the presence of certain women that we see a darker side to his character which later merges with his view of the Treaty being signed, he is ultimately “fighting his own war” . By Contrast Kerry O’Shea does not want to be “in the Movement” and does not want to take life but is forced by circumstance to do both.

I’m tempted to run down the list of supporting actors, it was/is breath-taking. My father ranks this as one of his favourite films, I can see why.  You will have noticed I give very little of the plot away – it is young student gets caught up in rebel affairs after death of a friend, he is to be smuggled out of the country and while waiting for his ship with a squad of volunteers events take a number of turns which force all involved to make a series of life changing decisions.

Rating 8/10 It is of its time and dealing with what was then a delicate subject, but is well nuanced and well worth watching.

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