Anatole Litvak's City for Conquest (1940) is a lavishly produced mutt of a movie. It attempts to be a gangster picture...well, sort of. It's a human interest melodrama...kind of. The middle third is a story about boxing. Or maybe it's a high brow morality play about the American dream turned rancid. Litvak and screen scenarist John Wexley never quite make up their minds. All of the aforementioned narrative threads intermingle in Aben Kandel's original novel. But Wexley's screenplay really doesn't bring a lot of cohesion to any of them. Instead, we bounce from gangster saga to melodrama to sports movie, then back to melodrama, then gangster movie...well, you get the picture. But perhaps therein lays the films’ universal appeal and enduring reputation. It effectively touches on all things and, as a result fulfills some of its aspirations.
James Cagney stars as idealist Danny Kenny, a truck driving happy-go-lucky fellow whose growing affections for childhood sweetheart Peggy Nash (Ann Sheridan) force him into the boxing ring in order to give Peggy the sort of lifestyle he knows she wants and believes she deserves. Here’s the wrinkle: Peggy’s a good kid not a gold digger, but one whose head is turned with promises of the high life by oily dancing pro, Murray Burns (Anthony Quinn). Unfortunately for Peggy, Burns is a womanizer. Peg's just another notch on the ol' bedpost and by the time she realizes what Burn's is really after it's too late to back out. Burns takes Peggy's virtue by force.
Fueled with frustrations – sexual and otherwise - Danny wants to do right by his brother, Eddie (Arthur Kennedy) a struggling composer and music teacher who dreams of conducting his own symphony one day. Danny (renamed Kid Samson) is placed under the expert tutelage of prize fighting promoter Scotty MacPherson (Donald Crisp). He begins his meteoric rise to fame and fortune the hard way - with blood, sweat and tears. But the dream turns ugly when a fixed match and a bit of resin in his eyes irreversibly blinds Danny - effectively ending his career. Although Danny holds no one but himself accountable, old time friend turned gangster, Googie (Elia Kazan) will not let the matter rest. He confronts and manages to kill one of the men responsible for the fix before being killed himself. As for Danny, he resorts to selling papers on a street corner, all the while quietly watching as his brother’s dreams become a reality.
There are some grandiose melodramatic touches of inspiration throughout City for Conquest and some genuinely laughable misfires – such as beginning and ending the story with an extended prologue told by an optimistic hobo (Frank Craven) who functions as our emcee into New York’s ever evolving heartbreak of humanity. The boxing montages, as well as the final bought that cripples Danny’s eyesight, are staged for maximum suspense and pathos. But the screenplay suffers from too many conspicuous villains, masterminds marginally glimpsed from the periphery of the plot, leaving Googie to avenge Danny's misfortunes on characters we've never even seen, much less have learned to hate or believe they deserve his vengeance.
James Cagney does the little guy with big dreams and an even bigger heart proud. He's a fighting spirit with a clean soul and a passion for life who doesn't break under pressure or even after being dealt the hard knocks. Perhaps he's too good - too pure to belong among the all-pervasive criminal element and, at times, all too ready to snuff it out. Ann Sheridan gets a lot of playtime and occasionally even deserves it as the good girl, turned harsh, though never bad from her own miscalculated life experiences. It's a bit of a stretch to see her snap like an elastic from living the high life back to being contented with a blind man in a one bedroom apartment. In an attempt to illustrate for the audience what all this suffrage has been about, the plot stops dead in its tracks for a lengthy symphonic composition, supposedly written by Arthur Kennedy's Eddie and played over the radio to prove to Eddie - still selling papers at the news stand - that his own struggles have not ended without some purpose or meaning.
Over the years, City for Conquest underwent a number of mutilations on the small screen – axed to fit as the bottom half of a double bill reissue in theaters, and later Ginsued to accommodate commercials on TV. The complete version was thought to have been either destroyed or lost. This newly minted DVD from Warner Home Video restores the film to its original length. However, the quality of the transfer is suspect. Certain sections belie the fact that no original camera negative probably exists. Warner is working from various source materials and the fluctuation in image quality is glaringly apparent.
Still, it’s gratifying to see the film in its complete form. Much of this B&W transfer is very smooth and pleasing on the eyes. Occasionally we lapse into softly focused, poorly contrasted scenes with a heavy grain. But these oversights are forgivable and at the mercy of source materials. The audio is mono and has been very nicely cleaned up. Extras include five short subjects, an audio commentary by Richard Schickel and a new featurette on the role of women in gangster movies. Schickel’s commentary deserves special mention – because it is so bad.
Honestly, with a wealth of writing experience and movie history behind him, all he can do on this occasion is wax in generalizations that are dull and uninspired. Perhaps a prerequisite for future audio commentaries should be that the person providing them actually takes the task seriously.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)