Thursday, April 11, 2013

Movie Review: City for Conquest

City for Conquest (1940)
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 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 honest performances of James Cagney and Ann Sheridan are what save City for Conquest from sinking into a morass of dated pretension. The story is sentimental but they are not. They play two innocents, desperately in love but always failing to understand each other. Cagney's character Danny is utterly content with his lot in life, making him an unusual role for the actor. The Cagney canon is full of men reaching out to grasp for life with both hands. Here, the grasping is reserved for Ann Sheridan. Her character Peggy is even more naive than Danny but her powerful desire to be a great dancer is the undoing of them both. 

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.

Favorite Quote:

"Boy was it crowded tonight on the subway. Talk about sardines. They got it easy. At least they're floating in olive oil."

Favorite Scene: 

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


  1. I enjoyed how your post struck the perfect balance between giving the film its due (the performances of Cagney, Sheridan, and, a particular favorite, Anthony Quinn), and calling attention to the sometimes seriously corny speechifying. At times the film sounds like a Carol Burnett spoof. But Cagney is always so touching when he plays soft, and I like him a lot here. A terrific post about one of Cagney's more modest efforts.

  2. I've only seen this on an old VHS without the Frank Craven narration - I've read these sequences were removed from the film before release but have now been restored for the DVD (sadly not available in the UK except on import), so I'd be interested to see how much they add. Another great review, Aubyn - as chance has it, I have just seen 'Golden Boy', and so am very interested by your comparisons of the two, both with their contrasts between boxing and music as different means of escape. Must add that I love Max Steiner's music in this film, especially the symphony at the end! Judy

  3. Aww, I just love this film so much - I guess all of its obvious faults (and you are right - there are a bunch), just don't matter when Jimmy 7 Ann are in love. The ending chokes me up every time and I do wish that Arthur Kennedy's character would have become a truck driver (think how much easier Jimmy would have had it).Well done post, but I still can't give up the soft spot I have for this less than perfect film.

  4. I liked this when I first watched it, but over time it has waned in my affection. You are right that the story would have been more interesting had Sheridan's character been the focal point and not Cagney's. Still, all the minor plot points go well with the overlying one. As for Quinn's character, he was just sleazy--one of the pitfalls of being a Latin actor at this time in Hollywood. Nice review--and even a nod to Babs!

  5. Love the easy chemistry between Cagney and Sheridan in this one. I know Arthur Kennedy's performance may seem a bit much, but in college I knew an English major who spouted off stuff like Kennedy's character. He was very intense and passionate, so he reminded me very much like Kennedy's character. I guess some people feel more passion about their arts than others.

    For me, the worst aspect of the film is Arthur Kennedy's conducting his big city symphony. It could be the worst conducting I've ever seen. One can only imagine composer Max Steiner seeing this and doubling over with laughter. Didn't anyone coach Kennedy? Anyway, great review Aubyn.

  6. Ken Anderson: I didn't talk much about Quinn but I really did like the way he managed to dodge stereotypes and just create a really memorable, cold villain. And he was only 25 at the time, too. I like your comment about Cagney playing it soft, which he does here. It's a very gentle performance.

    Judy: You're right, I didn't give any attention to Max Steiner, who does a great job with the music here. One of these days, I really will have to devote a post to favorite musical scores.

  7. FlickChick: I did feel pretty bad for the moments when I ripped into this one since I know you (and many other commenters on IMDB I notice) truly love it. I know how you feel since I was having a conversation with my mom the other day about Kings Row and she was laughing over it and I was not exactly disagreeing with her but still going, "You don't understand, I love this in a completely non-ironic way." I would have liked to fall madly for City for Conquest since I love Sheridan and Cagney and I think their work here stands up really well. I did love your review of the film, which really captured its sweetness and sincerity.

    KimWilson: I'm kind of sorry for letting Stanwyck sidle into this review since brother, she has no room to talk about corn. She starred in Golden Boy after all.

    Kevin Deany: Yeah, Kennedy's conducting is sort of a WTF moment for the film. It's interesting that he reminds you of a friend and looking back, I can agree that I've known students that waxed a little silly over their arts. But I'd much rather have that than the ones who acted above-it-all, unimpressed with anything. Kennedy actually does a fine job acting-wise; he had a gift for portraying characters that were the smartest ones in the room.

  8. It seems that after "Our Town", Frank Craven became a perpetual "stage manager". Artistic choices are made and some stand the test of time and some don't. Thankfully, those of Jimmy and Ann transcend time and go right to our hearts.

  9. Thanks, Aubyn, for your excellent contribution to the Cagney Blogathon. You treat the film respectfully but in a realistic way that acknowledges its shortcomings. I've seen it twice. The first time was on television many years ago when I was in college and first taking film appreciation courses and watching lots of foreign movies, and my reaction was that it was pure corn and cliche. (I think the version I saw must have been the one with Frank Craven's chorus edited out.) What most struck me was seeing Elia Kazan's name in the credits. The second time was just a few months ago, and I felt much more sympathetic this time. The corn was still there, but in the meantime I've seen a lot more Hollywood films and have learned that even if a movie as a whole is flawed, there can still be individual things to like. You discussed the things I most like about this film--chiefly the performances by Cagney, Sheridan, and Quinn (but not Arthur Kennedy, whom I nearly always like, but find his earnest naivete a bit much here), and the wonderful photography by James Wong Howe. Cagney in particular gives a performance others have noted is subdued and rather sweet. He seemed to play several parts like this in the early 40s.

    The whole Symphony of the City business strikes me as a bit silly, though, and the concept of Frank Craven's chorus seems awfully contrived and heavy-handed. You chose as your favorite scene that crucial boxing match, and as I watched it this last time I thought of how much it looked forward to the way boxing matches are shown in later movies. (Howe also photographed 1947's "Body and Soul," which uses many of the same visual strategies you describe, and which I had heretofore considered the template for later boxing sequences.) You also mentioned that Cagney's performance doesn't have the kinetic quality of most of his acting, and I can't help wondering if Litvak's directing style (long takes with the camera following actors as they hit precise marks), which as you said Cagney disliked, cramped Cagney's natural physicality while acting and that was another reason he didn't like working with Litvak.

  10. Caftan Woman: What a succinct and elegant summation of the strengths and weakness of City for Conquest. You pretty much said what it took me 1,000+ words to say :)

    R.D. Finch: I always love your thoughtful, engaging comments and you've given me a lot to ponder here. I agree with you that dismissing a film in terms of pure corn and cliche isn't a very smart critical viewpoint--it's important to dig deeper and take each film on its own terms. Reading the Ebert obits this past week has given me a fresh perspective on the matter since Ebert made it a point not to go into films with any preconceived notions about what's cool and what's not. And "corn" can reveal a lot about the cultural dreams of the time.

    That said, I would dearly love to airlift Frank Craven out of the movie. He's definitely the worst element. I'm glad you brought up the Body and Soul connection. James Wong Howe really deserves his own blogathon.

  11. Aubyn, “City of Conquest” falls into that class of overly earnest films David Thomson was referring to in “The Big Screen” that came out of the Depression era. Perhaps timely to some extent but not timeless. Your review is even-handed and intelligent and entertaining and I enjoyed it immensely (I always look forward to your favorite quote and scene). As I understand it, Cagney was thrilled when WB bought the rights to the book. Raoul Walsh was to direct but WB decided a “prestige” director was needed and brought in Litvak. Cagney detested him (shot dozens of takes, autocratic, etc.). And the script didn’t measure up. Then it was badly edited. After he saw the finished film, Cagney said he would never again watch one of his pictures (but he did).

  12. It's one I've seen a few times yet somehow doesn't stick with me (Cagney boxing, yeah, let's try it again, I'll say every few years!). Loved Quinn, such an SOB, and wish Kennedy was somebody else--didn't know he had come by way of Cagney though. Well, if Ann Sheridan isn't the focal point, I almost always wish she was. You mentioned "Kings Row," I wanted more Ann there too. Nice background on Odets as well, you do a lot in this post and I really enjoyed.

  13. Interesting, thoughtful take on a film I have not seen. It sounds like it's worth seeing for the two lead performances. Thank you for sharing!

  14. The Lady Eve: I still haven't read "The Big Screen" although I give it a long, lingering look whenever I spot it in the bookstore. I really wish Walsh had directed this film. No offense to Litvak, who's made some interesting films. It's just that Walsh always seemed to bring out the best in Cagney's performances. Look at White Heat, The Roaring Twenties, and The Strawberry Blonde. I was thinking about The Strawberry Blonde a lot while watching this one since in Blonde, Cagney's characterization is along the same lines (naive, lovestruck, quick-to-fight) but feels a lot more natural and heartfelt. And I don't think City for Conquest is nearly as disappointing as Cagney seemed to think.

  15. Cliff Aliperti: There's something just so lovable about Sheridan isn't there? Even here, where her character is kind of weak-willed, she manages to convey reserves of warmth and humor. And I think she's the best thing in Kings Row, besides Korngold's score, Wong Howe's cinematography, and Menzies' production design.

  16. Classicfilmboy: I'd say if you are a fan of Cagney and Sheridan, it's well worth a look.

  17. As always, I loved your review, Aubyn. This is one I have never seen, although I'm pretty sure I've had it in my collection for almost 20 years. It sounds like it's worth a look, even with its flaws. I especially look forward to seeing Arthur Kennedy (love him in anything) and the young Anthony Quinn!

  18. I've only ever seen bits of this movie, never the whole thing. But I like Cagney and Sheridan onscreen together.

    Thanks for a terrific review. Now I HAVE to see the whole thing! :)

  19. Shadowsandsatin: I'd say this movie's worth it for fans of the cast since I don't think anybody gives a bad performance (except maybe Frank Craven but the part doomed him) and you can definitely see that Kennedy and Quinn will go on to success.

    Silver Screenings: Those two sure have great chemistry. I'd really like to see Cagney and Sheridan in Torrid Zone.

  20. Great essay! I only saw Ann Sheridan in th comic I was a male war bride, so this would be a turn to me. THis film is loaded with great people, including an actor Elia. A must-see!
    Don't forget to WATCH my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  21. Lê: I don't know what I was expecting from Elia Kazan as an actor but it wasn't the kind of snappy, semi-comic performance he gave here. I guess I thought he would be more intense and Method like well, a Kazan movie.

  22. Hah! I watched this recently too (I got a deal on the Warner Tough Guys Box in January) and my take is more or less the same as yours. While I was watching it, all I could think was: "This has that Barton Fink touch."

    I'm late to the party on Ann Sheridan, having consistently missed her movies in my youth. She's wonderful in this film.

    1. I know what you mean about Sheridan. She really does a lot with a potentially grating character. I wish she and Cagney had costarred a few more times. Like Joan Blondell, she was one of the few leading ladies that could partner him without looking like she'd just tried to tango with a hurricane.