directed by Anatole Litvak, starring James Cagney, Ann Sheridan
(Note: This is my entry for the James Cagney Blogathon, hosted by R.D. Finch at The Movie Projector)
All Danny Kenny (James Cagney) really wants from life is to settle down with his childhood sweetheart Peggy (Ann Sheridan) and to see his brother Eddie (Arthur Kennedy) finally complete that symphony he's been writing, a symphony of New York and all its ugliness and beauty. The trio have lived their whole lives scraping by in the slums of the Lower East Side, along with their friend the chronically criminal Googi (Elia Kazan). But while Eddie dreams of music, Peggy dreams of dancing, and Googi dreams of being a big shot, Danny refuses to climb higher. Even if his talent for boxing is more than enough to give him a chance at the limelight.
But when Peggy is lured away by a sleazy dancer (Anthony Quinn) and Eddie's music scholarship is taken away, Danny decides he has no choice but to fight his own way to success with his fists. Maybe then he can live up to Peggy's ambitions and give Eddie the chance to be heard. With the wise guidance of his manager Scotty (Donald Crisp), Danny does rise high, higher than he ever imagined. But what does it matter, if all he really wants is Peggy?
City for Conquest begins with a twinkly, omnipotent bum narrating the classic saga of New Yorkers that want too much. "This is my breakfast, talking up to the big town...seven million people fighting, biting, clawing away to get one foot on a ladder that'll take 'em to a penthouse." He tells all this to policeman Ward Bond, whose incredulous reaction is the funniest moment in the whole movie. Our self-appointed ringmaster moves on to weave his prophecies over a group of children, predicting that the twirling girl in the center will be a great dancer, that the boy punching a playmate in her defense will have to fight through life with his fists and so on. All through this introduction, my mind kept flashing to an image of Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, wrapping her Brooklyn drawl around the line, "Brother, that's corn."
I probably had Stanwyck on the brain thanks to a recent back-to-back viewing of Golden Boy and Clash by Night. But the reference has more relation to City for Conquest than you might think since since both films were adaptations of Clifford Odets plays. And City for Conquest feels so much like a movie that very badly wants to be Odets, specifically the Odets of Golden Boy. It wants to celebrate the poetry of the tenements and the scrabbling, hungry masses. It wants to explore their longings in high-flung metaphors. Danny Kenny's boxing becomes a stand-in for material ambition while his brother's desire to distill the essence of the American metropolis into melody is pure Gershwin and treated as a matter of near-celestial magnitude. It's easy to condescend to the pretentious sentimentality that floods City for Conquest (and Golden Boy for that matter) but at the time, this material had deep relevance for audiences fighting through the Depression. This was the struggle of the little guy, living in a world that seeks to bring him down.
The main problem with City for Conquest is that it wants to tell the story of people trying to conquer the world but centers on a protagonist who has no real ambition in life. How is Danny meant to encapsulate the dreams of the ordinary man when his pure selfless nobility and freedom from doubt make him about as extraordinary as they come? It's James Cagney that lifts Danny Kenny up from a metaphorical street angel into a true human being. As always, he feels too much but can't say it in words. His decision to box for the sake of his brother's musical career is told entirely through a shot of Cagney walking towards the piano, an affectionate smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. In another scene, he listens to Peggy argue with her mother. The mother takes exception to the way the couple sneak around back staircases instead of courting in the parlor and Peggy snaps back that there is no parlor, just a kitchen and a bedroom. The expression that flashes across Cagney's face tells us everything we need to know about Danny's embarrassment over the interruption, his discomfort at the reminder of their shared poverty, and his concern for Peggy.
Cagney's work here lacks the vibrant, unpredictable physicality of his best performances. I suspect that might be due to the direction of Anatole Litvak, who reportedly drove Cagney crazy with his insistence that the actor hit scores of chalk marks in every scene. There's a hint of constraint to his performance here that's suggestive of a man fighting down his own needs and wishes. Not very Cagney-like but wholly appropriate for the character. Cagney relies more on his eyes than his body here. It's an acting choice that becomes bitterly ironic by the movie's end.
City for Conquest was the third teaming of James Cagney and Ann Sheridan. Sheridan had shown scrappy charm in Angels With Dirty Faces and went on to blow everyone away in Torrid Zone, firing off one-liners with superb timing ("You push me one more time and you'll wear this suitcase as a necklace!") so another pairing with Cagney was only natural. They both had an unforced energy and warmth onscreen that always seemed rooted in the behavior of real people. When Sheridan gives Cagney a jab in the ribs or pulls his hat down around his ears, it feels more affectionate than an onscreen kiss. Sheridan's character here is a difficult one to play, a starstruck dancer whose constant flip-flopping over what she wants leads her into decisions that are naive at best and cowardly at their worst. Peggy could have been another monstrous ingenue along the lines of Priscilla Lane in The Roaring Twenties or Joan Leslie in High Sierra. Instead, she's sympathetic and ardent, a woman very clearly torn between love for Danny and the dawning realization that they want very different things from life. Sheridan also manages to subtly convey the effect that Peggy's controlling dance partner has on her, in the way she smiles too quickly and fiddles too much with her hands.
In a way, Peggy might have been the more natural protagonist for City for Conquest since she's the more conflicted and ambitious character. The script however, gives her short shrift. With all the constant references to Danny's boxing name, "Young Samson," Peggy is very obviously meant to be Delilah, another corrupting female that saps the strength of her man and almost destroys him forever. The lesson is driven home further when Lee Patrick shows up late in the film. She's a wisecracking burlesque dancer who reminisces to Peggy about her own lost love and how she wishes she'd chosen the man over the career. Looking at the damage she's caused, Peggy is left with little choice but to agree.
Arthur Kennedy makes his film debut here, as Cagney's ambitious younger brother, the would-be composer. In fact, Kennedy was Cagney's own discovery; he'd spotted him onstage and convinced Warner Brothers to cast him. Kennedy would go on to join that strange class of character actors that included Van Heflin and Richard Widmark. Charismatic enough to be leads and too serious to be comic foils but still relegated to the edges. As he would in later roles, Kennedy brings a watchful intelligence to the part of Eddie Kenny, even if he's given some of the worst lines in the film. When he starts rambling about the music of Allen Street, "with all of its mounting, shrieking jungle-cries for life and sun," there's little to do but take in his reedy good looks and wait for the silent moments. When he looks at Cagney with mingled unease and love, you can see flashes of the actor he'll become.
Anthony Quinn also makes an impression as Murray Burns, the dancer who manipulates and abuses the hapless Peggy. Quinn's slick looks and black heart call to mind all the stereotypes of the time about male dancers, a profession that was often seen as one step away from being a gigolo. But Quinn is no lothario; when he calls Peggy "baby" he snaps it out like the recoil of a gun. He plays it for menace, not seduction. The movie hints many times about just how Murray keeps Peggy in line, including one scene that stops just short of implied rape.
While Anatole Litvak relies maybe a little too much on montage, there's no denying that his direction of City for Conquest is fluid and fast-paced, his camera gliding down the streets with a grace that echoes his characters and their need for constant movement. James Wong Howe's cinematography manages to convey more of the romance for New York and its denizens than any of the script's little curlicues. And there's a notable scene involving Elia Kazan (surprisingly not so bad as an actor), some thugs, and a tense confrontation in a car that must have suggested something to Kazan for On the Waterfront.
In the end, City for Conquest is a story that, like its characters, reaches too high. The movie's ultimate strength rests not in its stargazing speeches or strained metaphors but in the performances. When the camera just gives in to the struggles that play across the faces of James Cagney and Ann Sheridan, then it becomes something real and moving. When Cagney gently asks Sheridan, "You still my girl?", it would take a pretty hardhearted moviegoer not to want to share in their dreams. If only for a little while.
"Boy was it crowded tonight on the subway. Talk about sardines. They got it easy. At least they're floating in olive oil."
The final boxing match between Danny Kenny and the opponent that ends up playing the dirtiest of tricks on him. Litvak and Wong Howe turn the scene into a precisely-melded sequence of montage, action shots, and closeups, letting you feel the weight of every blow, letting you see the emotions of every character that cares about Danny and watch their belief turn to horror. The outcome of the match is telegraphed from very early on but it only adds to the suspense. You keep waiting for somebody to realize what's going on but of course, help comes only too late.
Final Six Words:
More flickering candlelight than scorching neon