Monday, May 20, 2019

Shake Hands With the Devil

Another recent movie watch for me was the 1959 drama Shake Hands With the Devil.

Don Murray plays Kerry O'Shea, an American medical student in Dublin in 1921. This is the era when the IRA was still fighting for independence from the UK, so even when Kerry is at his parents' grave, he runs into a contretemps between the two sides, as the IRA tries to smuggle weapons through the cemetery. Kerry, for his part, is neutral in the conflict, having served in World War I and gotten his fill of fighting in France. He's in Ireland strictly to repatriate his late mother's body, and stayed to study medicine under professor Sean Lenihan (James Cagney).

Of course, events are going to come for Kerry regardless of what he wants. One night when he and his roommate are walking home from the pub, they encounter another skirmish between the IRA and the British forces, known as the "Black and Tans". Gunshots are fired, and Kerry, being a medical student, tries to help while the shooting is still going on. Admirable, but also kind of stupid. Kerry's roommate gets shot, and in the resulting confusion Kerry drops one of his textbooks that has his name on it. The British are going to be able to find him.

So it's either join with the IRA or try to get himself smuggled out of Ireland, and Kerry opts for the latter. He's taken to a safe house on the coast somewhere south of Dublin, an action organized by Lenihan, who is apparently in cahoots with the IRA. Kerry's about to find out it's only the tip of the iceberg. The safe house is on a farm and populated by a bunch of fugitives, helped out by go-between and provider of other comforts Kitty Brady (Glynis Johns).

One day, the thoroughly neutral and virtuous Lady Fitzhugh (Sybil Thorndike) goes to Dublin for the flower show. Of course, it turns out that she's not nearly so neutral, as she's being given the task of smuggling a prominent IRA leader out of Dublin in the trunk of her Rolls-Royce. However, the Black and Tans stop every car, including hers, and when they search, they find the IRA guy, so of course it's off to prison for Lady Fitzhugh. The local IRA cell retaliates by taking Miss Curtis (Dana Wynter), daughter of a prominent British official, hostage. Kerry starts to fall in love with her while she's in captivity.

Lenihan is having none of it, as he finds everybody around him is getting increasingly disloyal. Or at least, in his eyes, not as if it's actually going on. As for Kerry, he's trapped in the safe house with no real way to get out of Ireland, and finds himself getting drawn further into the conflict....

Shake Hands With the Devil is a well-made drama with mostly good performances. Cagney is quite good as the increasingly nasty IRA man. Murray is a bit bland, although there's enough going on around him that it doesn't matter. Glynis Johns is really good too, in a much less wholesome role than anything else I've ever seen her do. There are a lot of other people I haven't mentioned, such as Michael Redgrave as the head of the IRA, or a young Richard Harris as one of the men at the safe house.

I have to admit that I'm not too terribly interested in that period of Irish history, but even I liked Shake Hands With the Devil. I think you will too.

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