Happy Birthday, James Cagney

Peter Bogdanovich, in his essay on James Cagney in Who the Hell’s in It: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors, writes:

One of the guests asked [Cagney] how he had developed his habit of physically drawn-out death scenes, probably the best coming at the conclusion of The Roaring Twenties, where he runs (in one long continuous shot) along an entire city block, and halfway up, then halfway down, the stairs in front of a church before finally sprawling dead onto them. In answer, Cagney described a Frank Buck documentary he’d once seen, in which the hunter was forced to kill a giant gorilla. The animal died in a slow, “amazed way,” Cagney said, which gave him the inspiration, and which he played out for us in a few riveting moments of mime.

“The animal died in a slow amazed way.”

That is the statement of a smart intuitive actor. You use what you can. Everything is of use. Actors are the ultimate observers. This kind of approach can become too intellectual in the wrong hands. Or belabored. As though the actor is trying to show his work. It becomes about his preparation (ie: “see how much I look like the giant gorilla in the documentary?” to use a simplistic example), as opposed to what is happening in the scene. But when that type of specific observation is mixed with natural genius and physical ability (which Cagney had in spades), the result is nothing less than astonishing. The last scene of The Roaring Twenties (with Bogart going nuts emotionally, and Cagney dying in a long slow swoon up and down the church steps) is one of my favorite Cagney moments (the other being the famous prison freak-out scene in White Heat). You can see his dance training (but again, not in a belabored way – it’s just the freedom with his movement, how well he is able to move through space, fearless), and you can also see, if you’re looking for it, that strange sense of amazement that Cagney saw when the gorilla died.

He is dying. You can almost see him thinking: “I’m dying. Ain’t that somethin’? So this is what it’s like. Who the hell knew.”

Spectacular. It’s that last final fall that gets me.

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5 Responses to Happy Birthday, James Cagney

  1. scribbler50 says:

    Damn, that was terrific! I’ve seen it at least ten times but not for a long time.
    Thanks, Sheila.

  2. sheila says:

    He’s just the best. Nobody like him before or since!!

  3. phil says:

    An ultimate observer, yes:


    9 minute clip worth a view, with the highlight about 5 minutes in
    – all about observing.

    What a great man.

  4. Robert says:

    Watched “Mayor of Hell” last week. I could say the movie is a bumpy, misguided allegory of that experiment called democracy. But what I’m forced to say instead is that I sat through the whole thing just so I could watch Cagney do that thing only he can do. A thing which I can’t name, cause I don’t understand it. I just know I enjoy seeing it.

  5. sheila says:

    Phil – I’ve seen that clip before – just wonderful. How AWARE he is.

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