Shake Hands with the Devil (1959): Anderson’s Political Drama, Starring James Cagney and Don Murray

Michael Anderson directed Shake Hands with the Devil, a political drama set during the Irish War of Independence, starring James Cagney, Don Murray, and a wonderful cast of character actors.

Murray plays Irish-American Kerry O’Shea, who’s studying at the College of Surgeons in 1921 Dublin, during a guerrilla war.

He and his friend and fellow medical student, Paddy Nolan (Ray McAnally), are caught in the middle of an IRA ambush, and Nolan is shot by the British. Nolan tells O’Shea to fetch Sean Lenihan (Cagney), one of their professors.  Lenihan, a high-ranking IRA leader known as “the Commandant,” removes the bullet, but Nolan dies anyway.

O’Shea, who left his textbook (with his name inscribed) at the ambush scene, is now a wanted man. Lenihan takes him to meet his superior, “the General” (Michael Redgrave), an old mate of O’Shea’s father. When O’Shea refuses his invitation to join the IRA, the General arranges for a boat out of Ireland.

Lenihan takes him to a hideout by the sea, the base of an IRA unit commanded by Chris Noonan (Cyril Cusack). Lenihan is furious to find local barmaid Kitty Brady (Glynis Johns) consorting with the men there.

When Liam O’Sullivan (Noel Purcell), a top IRA leader, is wounded escaping from prison, O’Shea agrees to accompany the unit to treat him. O’Sullivan is discovered in the boot of the car of aged Lady Fitzhugh (Sybil Thorndike) and killed in a shootout by the British.

The soldiers check the people in the nearby pub, where the IRA men are waiting, and Terence O’Brien (Richard Harris) tries to hide a pistol he had brought. When it is found, it is O’Shea who’s taken away, and then brutally beaten by Colonel Smithson of the Black and Tans (Christopher Rhodes), when he refuses to inform.

Lenihan leads a raid to rescue him, which convinces O’Shea to join the IRA.  Lady Fitzhugh is sentenced to prison and goes on a hunger strike. Lenihan kidnaps Jennifer Curtis (Dana Wynter), the widowed daughter of a top British adviser, to try to force a prisoner exchange.

Lenihan prepares to assassinate Colonel Smithson at the dock. However, he suspects he has been betrayed when Kitty, by coincidence, tries to board a ship there. During the ensuing shootout, Lenihan kills Kitty in cold blood.

Meanwhile, Lady Fitzhugh has died, and the British have offered a peace treaty. The General is satisfied to have peace, but not Lenihan.

When Lenihan decides to execute Mrs. Curtis, up on the hill, O’Shea tries to stops him, telling him to sop fighting “your private little war,” as a treaty with the British is under way.

Stubborn to the bitter end Lenihan refuses to listen and in the ensuing fight gets killed by O’Shea.

The last image shows O’Shea’s gun thrown and washed by the water.