“The Animal Died In A Slow and Amazed Way.”

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. 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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3 Responses to “The Animal Died In A Slow and Amazed Way.”

  1. george says:


    Re the last final fall.

    I’ve seen the movie ten times, at least, have always gotten a kick out of this last scene as wonderfully Cagney.

    It’s thanks to you for featuring this scene not too long ago and again here that admiration grows, not just for the scene as a whole but for the nuance and the actor’s ability, natural or studied. I’ve just noticed, for the first time, Cagney, as he struggles up the stairs mortally wounded, is hunched over, it takes great physical effort to go up the stairs in a weakened state. As he comes down the stairs he straightens up – going down is easier no effort required.

  2. sheila says:

    George – yes, totally – it’s that last straightening up … and then he just launches himself down. Brilliantly done. Fearless!!

  3. Pingback: Yankee Doodle Boy | The Sheila Variations

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