Review: Gritty, Bold 'Shake Hands With The Devil' an Exceptional Work

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday January 18, 2022

Review: Gritty, Bold 'Shake Hands With The Devil' an Exceptional Work

After recently viewing Ken Loach's devastating 2006 film about the Irish War of Independence, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," I was hesitant about, "Shake Hands with the Devil," Michael Anderson's nearly-forgotten 1959 movie set roughly the same time. Granted it's not a Hollywood film per se (it was financed by the U.S. and Ireland), but Anderson directed the uber-entertaining Oscar-winner "Around the World in 80 Days," so I was expecting a politically sanitized film. Even the title, which comes from the saying, "Shake hands with the Devil and you'll never get it back," seemed cheesy.

Well, color me wrong.

Based on the 1933 novel by Rearden Conner, "Shake Hands with the Devil" is an exceptional, bold work with great performances that should be considered a classic.

Set in Dublin in 1921, "Devil" centers on Kerry O'Shea (Don Murray, Oscar nominated for "Bus Stop"), a war vet and med student from the states studying in Ireland, who soon finds himself unwillingly embroiled in the fierce battle between the Irish Republican Army and the British Black and Tans. The IRA leader happens to be Kerry's professor, Sean Lenihan (James Cagney), a hard-ass who administers the oath to his men that once you are in, you are never out (and if you ask to be out, you will die).

But after Kerry is wrongly imprisoned and tortured, he decides to commit to the cause. And when an unlikely freedom fighter is sentenced to prison, Lenihan decides that kidnapping the daughter of an important figure and making a trade is the best response, which leads to a startling climax.

This would be one of Cagney's last films before he retired. He'd make "One, Two, Three" in 1961 for Billy Wilder, another great performance, and then returned in 1981 in Milos Forman's "Ragtime." Cagney's Lenihan is a take-no-prisoners character who sees a potential treaty as treason. He's also a misogynist, bashing women at every turn —possibly a repressed homosexual. It's a fascinating performance. The character is explained as someone who spends his days "saving a life on the one hand, having to kill on the other. Must be hard for the man himself to know what he is sometimes."

Murray does a nice job of anchoring the film, and Glynis Johns is riveting as a barmaid who get entangled with the revolutionaries. The rest of the supporting cast, including a young Richard Harris, excels as well.

The film was released in New York on a double bill with a 1958 B movie titled "The Mugger" in June of 1959, proof that United Artists, the releasing company, had no clue what to do with it. The NY Times gave it a paltry four paragraph write-up, lightly praising the film. Some dismissed it as melodramatic. Others had issues with its politics.

I thought the Cagney character's willfulness was daring and represented a large faction of how the rebels felt: That a free state would end up compromising Ireland and pit Irishmen, once united, against one another — which it did.

The Blu-ray visual transfer from a brand new 2K master is exceptional. And the audio sounds fine.

The Special Features include a new eight-minute chat with Don Murray, still with his sparkling blue eyes, discussing the shoot, his character, working with Cagney, and the challenge of keeping things real.

"Shake Hands with the Devil" is much grittier than I imagined a 1959 film about the Irish rebellion would be. And it boasts James Cagney as an unyielding bastard. I highly recommend it.

Blu-ray Extras Include:

  • Brand New 2K Master

  • New Interview with Actor Don Murray

  • Theatrical Trailer

  • Optional English Subtitles

    "Shake Hands with the Devil" is currently available on Blu-ray.

    Frank J. Avella is a film journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep and a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. Frank is a recipient of the International Writers Residency in Assisi, Italy, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. His short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide (figjamfilm.com) and won awards. His screenplays (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW) have also won numerous awards in 16 countries. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute