Posts Tagged ‘ gangsters ’

My Intro to the Blog World & James Cagney

So, this is my first blog.  I’ve tried this before and always lose steam or just get tired of trying to come up with interesting topics.   At one time or another I wanted to write about movies, politics or just create funny stories but for some reason I couldn’t sustain it.  I think it was because I was forcing myself to stick to one narrow topic. This time I think I just want to make it a potpourri of topics that grab my fancy on any given day.  No themes, in fact every paragraph could start another topic of what I want to say.  That said…here I go:

I’ve spent my weekend alone and quietly obsessing over the acting style of James Cagney.  Recently I received as a gift the 4 DVD box sets of the Warner Bro’s Gangsters.  I put it away and never watched any of them because even though I like the films there is always so much to see and read that sometimes it’s difficult to catch up or find the time to enjoy a gift that came out of the blue.

So, this weekend I popped in City for Conquest by director Anatole Litvack, a man who doesn’t exactly light up your memory with classic films though he did some.  Sorry Wrong Number, The Snake Pit and All This and Heaven Too just to name a few.  I didn’t know him…had to look these up, so when his name flashed on the screen I didn’t anticipate anything.  My main objective was Cagney.

James Cagney

I have always been a fan of Cagney since my childhood.  He started off in my memory as the screen tough guy with the New York attitude.  In films like The Roaring twenties, The Public Enemy and Angels with Dirty Faces his persona was striking, tough and pugnacious.  Later on I saw his softer side and his dancing shoes in The Seven Little Foys and his great performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy as the venerable George M. Cohan in both films.  I grew up thinking Cagney was great but in my mind the same as his contemporaries during the 30’s & 40’s, Humphrey Bogart & Edward G. Robinson.  Great tough guy actors who defined the gangster in films for many years until Francis Coppola gave them the operatic touch and  transformed the screen gangster to mythic proportions in The Godfather Trilogy.  This lead to the highly stylized but grittier gangster of the Scorsese era of Goodfellas.  But the 30’s gangster personified by Cagney, Bogart & Robinson were the pioneers within that genre.

Back to Cagney.  I popped in City for Conquest and was transfixed by the immediacy and electrifying performance by James Cagney.  The film is nothing outrageous, two brothers, one a composer and the other a street tough struggle to survive during the depression.  One falls in love, loses her then becomes a boxer who loses his sight and the other finally achieves success and dedicates it to his blind brother.  Melodramatic and corny but relevant to its times.  It also contains one of the only screen appearances of the great director Elia Kazan as a gangster friend of the brothers and who reminded me of a young Robert DeNiro in his looks and mannerisms.  But it’s Cagney who I could not take my eyes off of.  He entered each scene like a bull dog chomping on a bone.  The life force that entered with him was palpable and alive.  For me Cagney was never a realistic actor.  His talent radiated a hyper realism.  Exaggerated but never over the top, tip toeing on the edge where it was easy to fall off and land on the side of parody.  No, his performance was all too alive for that.  Never, even during his quiet moments, do you think Cagney is not in that room, living his characters inner life.  Living the reality of a boxer who loses his sight and blames no one for the chances he took.  Now I’m not saying that this is a lost classic or he should have been awarded an Oscar for his performance here.  But like so many of his performances, and I saw three of them yesterday Conquest, Lady Killer & The Picture Snatcher, Cagney was present and alive in his films.  Constantly chomping at the bit of life, devouring every last bit of meat that was available in a scene.  Actually living a life within imaginary circumstances that acting Guru Sandford Meisner instructed his student to do every day of their lives.  Cagney for me is the embodiment of this acting technique.  He was a very special talent and one of the greatest screen actors the Hollywood studio system ever produced.

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