Shake Hands With the Devil

Shake Hands With the Devil (1959) unravels through the perspective of Kerry O’Shea (Don Murray), an American WWI veteran studying medicine at his father’s alma mater in Dublin. His professor, Sean Lenihan (James Cagney), is secretly a “commandant” in the Irish Republican Army and when O’Shea unintentionally becomes involved in a shootout between British forces (the Black and Tans) and members of the IRA, Lenihan provides him shelter from the authorities. Another stroke of bad luck lands O’Shea in British custody, where he is brutally tortured. Lenihan stages a raid to spring the young man from captivity, and at this point O’Shea decides not to return home to America but rather to stay and fight alongside the rebels. When Lady Fitzhugh (Sybil Thorndike), an Irish nobelewoman, is arrested and put on trial for assisting the IRA, Lenihan reacts by kidnapping Jennifer Curtis (Dana Wynter), the daughter of a British military adivsor, to facilitate a prisoner exchange. Jennifer attempts to seduce O’Shea in order to win her release—she is unsuccessful, but acknowledges a genuine mutual attraction with her American captor. Eventually a truce is reached, but Lenihan is still bent on killing and seeks to execute Jennifer in retribution for Lady Fitzhugh’s death from a hunger strike. While attempting to stop him from killing Jennifer, O’Shea shoots Lenihan in self-defense. The film concludes with him angrily tossing his gun into the ocean.

The film was an adaptation by Marian Thompson of Rearden Conner’s 1934 novel of the same name, with a screenplay by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts. The script changes the O’Shea character (originally to have been played by Anthony Perkins) from half-British, half-Irish to an American (perhaps to make the film more appealing to U.S. audiences). British director Michael Anderson shot the picture in and around Ireland’s Ardmore Studios, 12 miles south of Dublin, supplementing the principal cast of familiar British and American faces (including Glynis Johns in a standout performance as a barmaid) with locals, many from the Abbey Theater. “We didn’t come 6,000 miles for the scenery,” producer George Glass told the Los Angeles Times in December 1958. “We came because there are at least 300,000 character actors in Ireland. Wherever you turn, there’s a face that attracts.” Some of the film’s extras had in fact been members of IRA during the “Troubles.” Reaction to the film was generally positive, with critics praising the performances and Edwin Hillier’s black-and-white photography. Although few reviews mentioned the film’s musical score, it remains one of the film’s strongest elements.

British composer William Alywn was born in Northampton in 1905. At age 15 he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music, studying flute and composition, and was appointed to a professorship there at age 21. He subsequently served as principal flutist of the London Symphony Orchestra, and as a soloist and chamber musician, and continued teaching at the RAM until 1955. His output for the concert hall includes five symphonies, two major operas, three string quartets, several concertos and much chamber music. Alwyn began writing film music with the 1936 documentary The Future’s in the Air, and in 1941 scored his first feature, Penn of Pennsylvania. In all, the composer scored more approximately 200 films, contributing (along with Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten and others) to the so-called Golden Age of British film music. “Each film score I had written was an opportunity for experiment,” Alwyn wrote, “and an exceptional chance, given the splendid orchestras who played my scores, to improve and polish my technique and widen my dramatic range.”

Along with Odd Man Out (1947), Shake Hands With the Devil is often mentioned as being among Alwyn’s finest scores. Before composing the film’s music, Alwyn joined the cast and crew on location in Ireland. He later wrote of meeting the film’s star:

On a shiveringly cold day while on film location in the Wicklow Hills, I sheltered in a ditch with James Cagney. The tough gangster actor whiled away the time by singing Irish folk songs and ballads for me in the traditional manner of the Irish folk singer, drawing on a seemingly inexhaustible memory. These were taught to him by his grandmother during his childhood on the New York East-side. The native ear survived the Atlantic crossing.

Those interested in learning more about Alwyn’s film scores are encouraged to seek out Ian Johnson’s book William Alywn: The Art of Film Music.

Thanks to a recent series of re-recordings on the Chandos label, much of William Alwyn’s film music is now available to the general public, but many of these scores had to be reconstructed, as most of Alwyn’s written scores—along with the original soundtrack recordings—were lost or destroyed over the years. This makes the premiere CD release of Shake Hands With the Devil all the more important, as it is the first full Alwyn score to appear on CD in its original performance. (In fact, very few of the composer’s scores were originally presented on soundtrack albums; other than Shake Hands, only three subsequent Alwyn soundtracks—all from Disney productions—were issued on LP.)

Shake Hands with the Devil is the earliest United Artists LP (UAS 5043) represented on this box set and is one of two scores originally issued in “electronic” stereo. A few of the track titles were mislabeled on the original LP; the erroneous titles have been retained for consistency with the LP, but the proper titles are given below (in italics) as appropriate. The following discussion lists the album tracks in the order that they appear in the film.

15. Dublin 1921
The main titles appear over images of urban warfare, a blazing gun battle between the British (the Black and Tans) and the Irish Republican Army. Alwyn introduces three of the score’s principal ideas during the credit sequence, beginning with a lurching, all-purpose “violence” motive for winds. The five-note figure traces the shape of the score’s morose main theme, the pitches of which are gradually hinted at before the melody receives a full reading. Once the main title card appears beside an illustration of a hand reaching for a pistol—positioned forebodingly above an actual burning flame—the main theme runs its course on strings and brass over a grave pulse and field percussion. The melody represents the tragedy of the brutal conflict at the heart of the film and laments its impact on Sean Lenihan (James Cagney), the IRA commandant who becomes obsessed with killing, to the detriment of his cause. Between statements of the theme, a “call to arms” fanfare is introduced on brass for the freedom fighters, before the film transitions to a Dublin cemetery where narration tells of the ongoing war in Ireland. Fateful developments of the main theme for strings, low woodwinds and chimes sound as Kerry O’Shea (Don Murray) grieves the loss of his parents. A funeral procession passes behind him—actually a group of rebels transporting arms in a coffin. The Black and Tans appear and ambush the freedom fighters to outbursts of the violence motive, culminating in a nasty brass swell.
25. Death at Ashtown Docks (The Black and Tans)
Kerry and his IRA roommate, Paddy Nolan (Ray McAnally), witness a nighttime terrorist attack while walking home from a bar. Taunting versions of the violence motive build suspense as a bike-riding rebel lobs a grenade at a car filled with Black and Tans. Frenetic writing incorporates the violence motive for the chaos that follows the explosion; Kerry and Paddy attempt to flee the scene but when the assailant is gunned down by the British, Kerry is torn between escaping and helping the fallen rebel. Fragments of the main theme are traded between low strings and piercing woodwinds as he grapples with the choice, and when he ultimately runs back toward the action, Paddy is shot as a result. The IRA fanfare is referenced when Kerry leaps into action to defend Paddy from a British soldier. In the process, O’Shea drops his textbook, the fanfare sounding again as the camera pushes in, revealing Kerry’s name on the book’s cover—he is later forced to hide with the IRA thanks to this incriminating evidence.
The main theme is dressed with a descending chromatic woodwind figure (foreshadowing Kitty’s death motive) for a transition to Kerry carrying the mortally wounded Paddy toward the apartment of the Madigan family, members of the IRA. Cautious, moody developments of the main theme for woodwinds and strings play as they are admitted to the apartment, with biting brass acknowledging the severity of Paddy’s unseen wound when Kerry tears open his shirt. Nolan requests Lenihan’s help to an austere statement of the IRA fanfare. The youngest Madigan, Mary (Maryanne Benet), volunteers to find the surgeon, the score maintaining a dire tone and evoking the passage of time with tick-tocking xylophone as Kerry and Paddy wait. The cue ends just before Lenihan arrives; he is unable to save Paddy.
16. People of Erin
Kerry is taken in by Lenihan and a team of Irish rebels at their farm hideout. Alwyn quotes the 1908 Irish song “Eileen Oge” (by Percy French and Houston Collisson) on strings when he joins rebel Chris Noonan (Cyril Cusack) on a hill overlooking the sea. The aching, long-lined melody (heard earlier in the film as source music) humanizes the resistance fighters (the “People of Erin”), gently evoking the lives they have left behind as Noonan reveals his profession of writing Gaelic poetry; thanks to the Black and Tans, he must now practice it in hiding.
18. The Black and Tans (Rescue at Garda Depot)
After Kerry is taken captive by the Black and Tans, the rebels pose as British soldiers and infiltrate enemy barracks to rescue him. When the actual British show up to collect the prisoner, the rebels are exposed. Agitated statements of the violence motive dance around bold brass material as the freedom fighters make their escape with Kerry in their truck, plowing past an enemy vehicle and overturning it in the process. The main theme portentously underscores Lenihan questioning the injured Kerry in the back of truck. The commandant is pleased to learn that O’Shea revealed nothing to the British, the IRA fanfare underlining the American’s newfound loyalty to the rebel cause.
Low, mysterious versions of the main theme play as a boat (O’Shea’s transport back to America) approaches the lighthouse, its crew using lanterns to communicate with the IRA base. The rebel truck arrives on the scene and the fanfare sounds once more amidst anguished string writing as Kerry is carried into the lighthouse by the freedom fighters. Tense developments of the main theme and violence motive lead to a scornful brass stinger as he comes face to face with O’Brien (Richard Harris), the clumsy rebel responsible for his capture.
17. Kerry O’Shea
Kerry opts not to return to America, instead pledging himself to the freedom fighters’ cause. Militaristic statements of the IRA fanfare reinforce his declaration to Lenihan, the score building to a cathartic exclamation as the satisfied commandant informs Noonan that O’Shea will not be leaving on the ship.
The film transitions to outside the lighthouse after several days have passed and Kerry has recuperated from the effects of being tortured, “Eileen Oge” returning on strings and clarinet for Noonan and O’Shea discussing their scenic but secluded surroundings. The serene nature of the cue is disrupted by the violence motive when Kitty Brady (Glynis Johns), barmaid and IRA supporter, arrives to inform them that the British are taking innocent civilians hostage in hopes of drawing out the rebels.
19. Men of the Republic
The freedom fighters plot to kidnap Jennifer Curtis (Dana Wynter), the daughter of a British military advisor; they hope her abduction will prompt the British to release their prisoner, rebel sympathizer Lady Fitzhugh (Sybil Thorndike). Coy, suspicious material spotlights winds and pizzicato strings for the rebels posing as street cleaners at a deserted location. Jennifer’s car pulls up to their road block, the cue mounting suspense as she and Captain Flemming (Alan White) are suddenly ambushed by Lenihan and his men. A motor-rhythm on strings supports the IRA fanfare once the commandant hops into the back seat and forces the car’s driver to proceed down the road. They are stopped at another road block, where a British sergeant questions them and ultimately lets them pass; the reprised material from the cue’s opening that addresses this tense interrogation is dialed out of the film (1:27–2:20).
21. Professor Sean Lenihan
Jennifer joins Kerry at the top of the lighthouse. As the captive Brit seduces the infatuated American, the main theme is given a romantic treatment on solo violin, yet the melody’s ties to the rebellion remind of the terrible circumstances that have brought these two together. They kiss and the music climaxes, but Jennifer ruins her plan by pushing too hard—the deceptive opening material from “Men of the Republic” is reprised as she assures Kerry that she will join him in America if he helps her escape. Scornful brass and hesitant low strings sound as he praises her lousy performance and asks her how far she would have been willing to go. She confesses she would have done anything to escape, but he still believes she has feelings for him and he kisses her again. The opening of this cue (0:00–1:11) is dialed out of the film; despite the cue title, the sequence has nothing to do with Lenihan.
22. Pretty Kitty Brady
When Kitty overhears the rebels plotting an attack on the Ashtown Docks, Lenihan confines her to the lighthouse. The “Eileen Oge” melody plays on clarinet over a foreboding pedal point as she sneaks out at night and heads for the beach. She convinces O’Brien to let her go for a swim, and ornamental woodwinds dress the folk theme on a transition to her picking up her clothes after she emerges from the water. The cue concludes with an angry brass outburst to signal the appearance of Lenihan. Kitty wonders how long he has been watching her with his “hot eyes.”
20. Lighthouse at Wicklow Head
The tension between Lenihan and Kitty comes to a head when she baits him, daring him to touch her now that no one is around—the commandant grabs her by the throat and banishes her. Kitty retreats to the pub, which has been wrecked by the Black and Tans. Pub owner Donovan (Patrick McAlinney) reveals that the British are looking for her—they know she is involved with the rebellion. As Kitty worries about what they will do to her if she is captured, the score establishes a tone of dread with panicky clarinet hinting at the violence motive, and a descending chromatic figure that foreshadows her fate later in the film. After Donovan gives her money for a boat ticket to England, a dire horn statement marks a transition to the lighthouse, where the rebels prepare in silence for their forthcoming attack on the British at the Ashtown Docks. Kerry, who has fallen in love with the captive Jennifer, enters her room to inform her that he will be accompanying the rebels on their mission. A suffering rendition of the main theme underscores their parting exchange—although Jennifer will not openly admit her love for Kerry, her concerned expression tells him all he needs to know and he vows to return to her.
24. Rescue at Garda Depot (Death at Ashtown Docks)
Kitty’s coincidental presence at the docks triggers a premature shootout between the Irish and the British. String and woodwind runs suggest the violence motive as Lenihan guns her down in cold blood while Kerry watches in horror. The chromatic idea from “Lighthouse at Wicklow Head” returns as Kitty slumps to the floor dying—she assures Lenihan she did not tip off the British, before he coldly retreats. Kerry runs over to cradle her dead body but the surrounding gunfire forces him to dive off the dock, the cue reprising action renditions of the violence motive and main theme heard earlier in the score (in the track “Death at Ashtown Docks,” the actual “Rescue from Garda Depot” cue). As Lenihan and his men make their escape, the commandant rolls grenades under a British armored truck and the vehicle explodes to a final outburst of the chromatic motive on brass.
23. Trouble
Lenihan learns that Lady Fitzhugh has died as a result of a hunger strike. In retaliation, the unhinged commandant plans to execute Jennifer, despite the fact that a treaty guaranteeing Ireland dominion status is already in place. Noonan tells Lenihan that killing Jennifer will not bring Fitzhugh back, but Lenihan is too far gone, calmly replying, “We have no choice,” accompanied by a resolute statement of the IRA fanfare. When he brings Jennifer out of her room, the rebels are too ashamed to look at her. The funereal main theme builds as Lenihan marches the girl out to a nearby hill. Stabbing brass and percussion support the theme as Kerry arrives at the lighthouse and runs to the hill to stop Lenihan, shouting out the commandant’s name and diverting his attention from Jennifer.
26. Rebel to the End
O’Shea accuses the commandant of losing sight of the cause—he now kills for the sake of killing, and his next victim will be Jennifer unless Kerry can convince him otherwise. Stark brass outbursts sound over lingering chords as Lenihan calls out the surrounding rebels’ names one at a time to see who is with him: they are all silent. Tense developments of the main theme follow as the spurned leader turns his attention back to Jessica. O’Shea furiously quits the IRA before the commandant spins around, forcing Kerry to fire. An exclamatory string flourish leads to anguished statements of Kitty’s chromatic death motive, which Lenihan inherits as he slumps to the ground and dies. The main theme emerges fatefully as O’Shea tosses his gun onto the beach, the IRA fanfare beckoning for the last time as he looks up at Jennifer. The tide laps at his discarded weapon before the end titles play out over a shot of the ocean to a pure rendition of the main theme. — 

From the original United Artists LP…

Why does a man rebel? The essence of man’s difference from other forms of life is his ability to reason. From this ability stem many of the problems in our lives because the reasoning of one man will differ from that of another man. And if one man is in a position to enforce the conclusions of his reasoning, a strong man of different beliefs will rebel.

The film Shake Hands With the Devil is essentially the story of one man’s rebellion, although it encompasses the rebellion of a people. It is the story of the last days of the Irish rebellion, culminating a seven hundred year struggle for independence from England. It is, therefore, a story of people tired of a seemingly neverending struggle with peace in sight, and of other people in whom the bitterness of the struggle has implanted an unbending hatred which even victory cannot placate.

A man rebels and becomes enmeshed in the essence of a rebellion to the point of forgetting the cause for which he rebels. When the cause is removed he cannot stop rebelling. It is one of the great tragedies of war, of rebellion, and sometimes of a mere difference of opinion.

James Cagney enacts this role in the film as Sean Lenihan, an Irish Republican Army leader who, with victory in the form of a peace treaty in sight, cannot give up the power which he has wielded for so long in the underground or the excitement of the struggle. He is supported by a cast of the finest actors in England and the United States: Don Murray, Dana Wynter, Glynis Johns, Michael Redgrave, Sybil Thorndike, and Cyril Cusack.

This album is the music from that movie. Necessarily, it is exciting, but it also has something more than excitement. It has pathos.

In the last few years, the music for film has been given increasing attention as an important, integral part of the entire production. Important composers are engaged to write for screenplays and important conductors are engaged to conduct fine orchestras. The renowned William Alwyn composed the music for Shake Hands With the Devil, and Muir Mathieson, perhaps the most distinguished composer-conductor in the film industry, conducted the Sinfonia of London.

With such increasing emphasis on the quality of film music, of course, has come recognition of its worth apart from the film—as ballet music is recognized apart from the ballet. It is essential that music which is combined with another art strikes a delicate balance. It must not intrude, and yet it must enhance. When it is great, it can strike this balance and still stand alone.

The music of Shake Hands With the Devil stands alone and yet reflects the great struggle depicted in the film of one man’s rebellion projected against the larger struggle of one nation’s rebellion.

—DeDe Daniels