Cagney, City for Conquest, and the Invention of the Postmodern Protagonist

As many of you may know from reading my late night tweets and Facebook updates, I’ve been immersing myself in James Cagney movies ever since I stumbled on his old residence in New York a couple months ago.

This phase of film watching is partly for further research on Caput, my feature-length hit man screenplay, which I’ll be rewriting within the next month or so. Before that, I spent a few solid months watching a ton of Humphrey Bogart classics like In a Lonely Place, To Have and Have Not, Casablanca (of course!) and The Roaring Twenties, in which I discovered Cagney and all his tough guy glory to come.

The plaque (L) that’s attached to the building where Cagney lived (R).

Now you might not guess it by looking at me, but when I was a younger man, the only movies I ever watched were action movies. If you asked me to name the top actors, the “Holy Trinity” would’ve been Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Segal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Kickboxer, Out for Justice, Commando­­––if you can name it, I most likely watched it (dozens of times, too, on account of my Dad and our first VCR). Stir in a bit of Return of the Jedi and Back to the Future, Part II and that about rounded out my “eclectic” taste in movies back in the day. Then the American Beauty drama bug bit me in 1999, and the virus spread on with Requiem for a Dream so that by the time Donnie Darko nailed my brain, there was no hope for remedy. This virus crescendoed when Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind edged me on towards a decent into the madness of foreign films from Italy, France, Japan, Hong Kong and beyond. I was ready for renaissance.

But today, I find myself lost in classical Hollywood, circa 1920 to 1950, and rediscovering the lure of the anti-hero while most filmmakers are busy finding new ways to exploit their R-rated comedies. More so, I’m taking on tough guy tales because in many cases they are much deeper character studies into basic human behavior than most people might give them credit for. They’re not shallow reprisals of stories told over and again to supplement an “explosions quota” or the underscore of some grisly killing by demon or devil. The films of Cagney are films about characters who have faults and attempt to overcome them. They’re rooted in the ancient Greek tradition of the tragic hero, and through evolution they’ve worked their magic into the postmodern world.

Even now, I’m still fascinated how I could be so empathetic to big time baddies Tom Powers and Cody Jarrett when they get their just deserts at the end of The Public Enemy and White Heat, two of his very best films. Or even poor Eddie Bartlett sprawled dead on the steps in The Roaring Twenties. These are hard-wired gangsters who made their way in the world loaded with lead, and of course, the bulk of these characters are the basis for most of the anti- and Byronic-heroes that populate today’s more indie films and TV shows.

Original poster art for City for Conquest.

One of Cagney’s films in particular had more of a profound impact on me than I ever had expected––the 1940 film City for Conquest, beautifully directed by Anatole Litvak. In a nutshell, City for Conquest tells of a trio of street tough Irish kids growing up on Forsyth and Delancey in New York City, each determined to get out and make something of his or her life. Eddie Kenny dreams of playing a dark symphony in a city spellbound by swing; Peggy Nash wants to see her name in Broadway lights as a famous dancer; and Danny Kenny (Cagney)? Well, he has no aspirations whatsoever. He’s content with his girl Peggy and his job driving a truck until his brother Eddie comes up short for his payments to study music at school. That’s when Danny launches a career in boxing––until then something he did only for exercise––all the while longing to be back home with his girl, who spends her time tripping the light fantastic with dance hall celebrity Murray Burns, masterfully played by Anthony Quinn.

Perhaps what struck me most about Danny’s character is how all-too-human he really is. Through the film’s second act, Danny wins match upon match, and there’s a wonderful nugget of a moment when an “old timer” mentions to a crowd listening to the match that perhaps Danny wins every match because he doesn’t care whether he wins or loses, and that perhaps if he did want to win, he’d end up losing. The men to whom the hobo speaks crook their heads at him like confused puppies, as would anyone today, more than 70 years later.

You see, in today’s world, in any city up for conquest, this is a difficult sentiment to maintain since the very idea of “not caring” surely insinuates that what you’re doing is not important. But I find that’s simply not so. There are dreamers who give their all, there are those who fall asleep, and there are also those who stand somewhere in the middle. And there are those, like me, who don’t dream or do but simply are. Surely I’ve attained my one and only dream since I was a kid––being a published poet. But did I ever dream I’d be an indie filmmaker? Never. Did I ever do anything to learn how to be an indie filmmaker? Not once. But here I am, an indie filmmaker with a short film like Cerise, which has been putting smiles on lots of people’s faces, and another movie on the way, a music video in between, two feature-length scripts in the works and plenty more ideas to breathe life into.

Being successful, I find, is all about going with the flow. Perhaps it’s all that Douglas Adams I’ve been reading, but if you go in the direction the universe is pushing you, you can’t ever steer yourself wrong. In City for Conquest, Danny becomes a boxer because he simply boxes. Sure, it’s his decision, partly motivated by the need to pay for his brother’s schooling, but boxing has always been there, waiting for him all along. Like acting had been for Cagney. Like making films has been for me. Like who knows what else further down the road…

James Cagney in one of his finest (tough guy) roles ever.

Granted, Danny from City for Conquest is much more of a serious role for Cagney than, say, Danny Kean in Picture Snatcher or Dan Quigley in Lady Killer, but this Danny is still a tough guy who gets around by way of his fists, a hot-headed little Irishmen who by the end learns that his toughness can only get him so far, but consequently it elevates his spirit to the heights of Sainthood (and that’s all I’ll say about that––I don’t wanna spoil the end of the movie for you!) That’s what I found so uplifting that I was moved to tears by the final frame of the film––a character who at the beginning of the film has no motivation for anything ends up motivating others simply by being who he is through his whole life, and ultimately that is all the motivation he ever really needed. In a world where identity changes as often as a pair of socks, that says a lot about toughness; you’ve gotta be tough to trust in what you’re doing and not think about the end result.

Though a majority of Cagney’s famous roles (Frank Ross in Each Dawn I Die and “Brick” Davis in “G”Men) are less complicated than City for Conquest’s Danny Kenny and mostly motivated by money, greed, power, or revenge, I’d like Teddy Caputo, the protagonist in Caput, to be one who’s carved out of the same stock of emotions that makes audiences connect with a cold-blooded robber like Cody Jarrett and a straight and narrow guy like Danny. And to achieve that, it means more hours in front of my midnight tube lighting up my eyes with classic Hollywood noir, and I’m excited to carry the black and white torch of my journey deeper into the soul of the anti-hero that began with Bogie and continues with Cagney, and lights on the directors that helped these two titans of the silver screen endure through the decades.

What are some noir films that have left an strong impression on YOU? List ’em in the “Comments” section!

3 thoughts on “Cagney, City for Conquest, and the Invention of the Postmodern Protagonist

  1. Highly thoughtful post, Johnny Boy. For some reason I haven’t been able to acquire City for Conquest — perhaps we could work out a trade somehow. My favorite cinema noir,in no particular order:

    Nick Ray’s “They Live by Night” (1948) — Ray’s debut film! How is that even possible?? Farley Granger and Catherine O’Donnell try to live the dream, while being hunted down by cops and creeps alike. Hauntingly sentimental.

    Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player” (1960) — french pulp noir/nouvelle vague at its finest. Charles Aznavour takes sort of a Travis Bickle turn, morphing from a milquetoast, defeated lounge singer into a real bad-ass gangsta of the night. Funny, tragic, romantic, all that good stuff.

    Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) — Noir meets Psychobiddy in this famous, not-quite-noir and Golden Era Hollywood satire. Gloria Swanson’s “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille” is as ubiquitous as it gets, and the entire film, told from William Holden’s hack unknown screenwriter perspective, is both hilarious and biting. Timeless.

    John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950) — amazingly bizarre motley crue of characters, inc. Sterling Hayden & an unknown-at-the-time Marilyn Monroe, in a small part. Very Reservoir Dogs-esque (or I should say Reservoir Dogs is very “Asphalt Jungle”-esque!)

    H. Hawks’ “The Big Sleep” (1946) — The Raymond Chandler story of Phil Marlowe, the smart-ass/rebel private dick who falls ass-backwards into pussy and danger at every turn. Bogey nails it.

    Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1974) — Technically NOT a noir, but generally included in the canon as “neo-noir” I guess. Noir with an asterisk. Nicholson updates the Marlowe private eye with a bit more balls, and Faye Dunaway in her “Network”-era heyday (before Mommie Dearest destroyed her career lol).

    Jacques Tourneur’s “Out of the Past” (1947) — “You built my gallows high, baby….” Robert Mitchum gets doublecrossed. How often does THAT happen?? Dig it.

    There are more, but my brain hurts. Great post John !

    1. Thanks for reading my post, for the kind comments about it AND for the extensive list of films! I appreciate it immensely! You’ve got plenty of classics here, many of which I haven’t watched yet, but rest assured, I’m adding ’em to my Netflix queue as we speak! Loved Sunset Boulevard (thought the first time I watched it I didn’t care for it), of course, and The Big Sleep, Chinatown, and especially Shoot the Piano Player. I’ll definitely be checkig out your other suggestions, soon. I did go through a “Criterion Noir” selection (a noir booklet came with a movie I purchased, which included The Long Good Friday, Le Samourai (not a big fan), Mona Lisa, Theives’ Highway and Night and the City, among others. That’s what got me really into noir, but those were mostly foreign films on that list. It’s nice to be visiting the American side of the black and white spectrum. And if I owned City for Conquest, I’d totally be doing a swap. But I may own it soon as I get a paycheck and hit up eBay 🙂

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