I never want to be that old stodgy dude who says, "they don't play the game the way they used to" but when it comes to movies, I am afraid I am becoming that guy.
They don't make movies the way they used to.
In this day and age, it appears that television has become the more innovative medium for character studies. Shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad allow the long hours to truly flesh out characters and, if needed, add some plot. Movies these days seem like the opposite: lots of plot and thin characters.
But as has been shown many times in the past, complexity is not necessarily needed if the characters are in the right place or have the correct motivation. Director Anatole Litvak's City for Conquest (1940) is the perfect showcase for this. The three main costars (and the primary antagonist) exist purely on charisma. Their lives really only have one purpose and the movie will not stop until that purpose is met (for better or worse).
Jimmy Cagney, as vibrant and as engaging as ever, is not exactly deep as Danny Kenny. Playing more towards type, Cagney is a fast-talking, happy-to-be-a-mope truck driver who boxes on the side. Due to his immense fear of becoming a punch drunk loser staring into oblivion, he avoids the big lights (and big dollars) of the boxing racket despite his immense skills.
See, Kenny's purpose is to settle down with a comfortable salary and his main girl Peggy (Ann Sheridan). Peggy, however, has her eyes on higher goals: she wants to be a dancing star. Like Kenny, she has the talent but hasn't had the opportunity. One night she gets it ... and there is no turning back.
Coupled between this is Kenny's brother Eddie who is suffering a similar yet different dilemma than his brother and his dame. Eddie, played brilliantly by Arthur Kennedy (five time Academy Award nominee), is a truly brilliant composer but since his material is considered too high brow and antiquated he is getting nowhere and refuses to give in to commercial temptations.
City for Conquest, as you can see, manages to take the rather simple goals of three characters and drive the plot. And while it is all easy to put down on paper in terms of characterization and plot, the movie feels epic because the rise and fall of the characters is so epic that one can't help but feel swept up. No explosions, very little gun play and nary a fist fight (if you don't count the boxing) ... just pure drama.
A film like this is aided by the acting first and foremost. Cagney is wonderful. Realizing he has lost his girl to the bright lights of the city (and a smarmy, possible rapist dance partner played by a shockingly young Anthony Quinn) and wanting to fund his brother's dream of finishing at music school, Cagney becomes a prime time boxer by the name of Young Samson and powers his way to a title fight.
Predating the makeup effects and emotional brutality of Rocky, Young Samson's final fight involves a crooked corner man who helps poison Kenny's eyes with a white substance and though Samson is never knocked out, he takes a brutal beating and, in the end, loses his sight. The heart of a champion but he became all he thought he would if he became a boxer: a blind invalid.
Meanwhile, seemingly trapped in a contract (and in Anthony Quinn's grip), Peggy eventually throws her career away and moves back to the neighborhood she grew up in: penniless and now with a blind and brutalized former boxing star who peddles newspaper on the corners of Times Square.
The one bright spot: Eddie finished school (though he did sacrifice his values a bit to make successful commercial music for a time) and produces his grand symphony called "City for Conquest": a story of how people in the greatest city of all, New York, enter with expectations higher than the skyscrapers only too often to be beaten to the ground and disenchanted, feeling lower than the subway.
The movie does have a happy ending, of sorts, as everyone ends up right where they either would have been or should be but, despite this, it doesn't pull any punches in its thesis: the world is a tough place and sometimes you make compromises, for better or worse. But most importantly: not all conquests end in success.
I obviously highly recommend this one. I think Jimmy Cagney is one of the greatest actors in history. I also love Ann Sheridan intensely. I am simply flustered by her beauty and cant see how actresses today are 'sexy' compared to her mixture of innocence and world weary experience. Anthony Quinn is engrossing as he is slimy while future mega-director Elia Kazan plays a rags-to-riches mobster who has Young Samson's back (his performance probably steals the picture).
So go watch it and experience the way films should be made: with heart and purpose and without trying too hard.