City For Conquest (1940)

City for Conquest (1940) is an epic Warner Bros. stories-of-the-city style prestige picture with a few filings of film noir placed within its frames, which tend to sprawling grandeur rather than intimate psychological portrayal.

Manhattan melodrama is the pure-bred genre this humanistic tale of immigrant struggles in New York City, does not fare high in noir, but is still a part of the story of the style, above all in the efforts of Warner Bros. to depict James Cagney as something more than a criminal, a boxer on the rise and fall, a story paralleled by the story of his young love Peg Nash, played by Ann Sheridan.

Old-time American everyman bum Frank Craven in City For Conquest (1940)

The fantastical framing of this at times crime-touched tale is made by actor Frank Craven, who plays a whimsical and philosophising bum called 'Old Timer' who comments with Bowery wisdom, telling of how the city 'smells of ambition', while documentary images back this up in a rather stark fashion, while the story concerns a theme familiar to the Warner Bros. house gangster style: the fight to climb the ladder of success.

Ann Sheridan and James Cagney in City for Conquest (1940)

City for Conquest does seem to wipe away what it can of the crime epic by serving more of the whimsy of the dance career of Ann Sheridan versus the boxing career of James Cagney, preserving what it can of the chemistry and spreading it low-key across several incredible urban landscapes, complete with the tragic element of Danny (James Cagney) receiving a blinding boxing injury to draw pathos rather than paranoia, and resignation rather than blazing fight to the death.

Boxing epic with James Cagney in City For Conquest (1940)

For urban ideology the idea that characters should accept their fate could not be less noir. The predetermined nature of Danny's decline would be in the hands of classic noir heel, by the murderous collapse of his intentions to fight. Many ambitions are thwarted in City for Conquest, and yet among so many large sets and set pieces.

Arthur Kennedy in City For Conquest (1940)

Amid this upward struggle there is one success story in the form of Arthur Kennedy's character, a classical composer -- the one that makes it. 

James Cagney throughout supports him in the most blue-collar and perfectly innocent manner. Amid the social determinism that seems to afflict everyone else, Arthur Kennedy's classical composer seems to be the one that thrives.

In film noir in fact, high art aficionados and those others of the connoisseur bent would tend to be ridiculed -- as played by Clifton Webb in The Dark Corner and in Laura -- or the more wild Franchot Tone in Phantom Lady. The music of Arthur Kennedy's character the struggling composer Eddie Kenny does pay Randian tribute to the overpowering and living city, and so for this reason alone this character may be the only one fit enough to face and express the epic scale of what is earnestly attempting to be an epic movie.

Elia Kazan in City For Conquest (1940)

George Raft was meant to appear opposite Cagney but was unable due to either scheduling reasons or Raft's reluctance to play such an unsympathetic role. Anthony Quinn played his part.

Anthony Quinn muscles in in City For Conquest (1940)

The tramp who appears and narrates the film is portrayed by Frank Craven as a sort of urban parody of his role as The Stage Manager in Our Town, which he had filmed just prior to this picture.

This is the vagabond voice of the city, at first directionless and quite ecstatically anti-establishment on one of the great city's great bridges, before traveling through the poorer side of town, where he meets some of the local children. 

Among them is Danny Kenny, who shows a talent for boxing. His girlfriend, Peggy, is a dancer. While Danny enjoys the sport, he does not aspire to become a professional boxer. Peggy, on the other hand, dreams of being a star.

Years later, despite once having won a New York Golden Gloves title, Danny decides to work as a truck driver. To help put his brother Eddie through music school, Danny starts to box professionally under the name of Young Samson. He quickly rises through the welterweight ranks to become a title contender.

Ann Sheridan and James Cagney in City For Conquest (1940)

One night, while at a dance club with Danny, Peggy is swayed by Murray Burns, a local dancing champion. Murray asks Peggy to become his professional dance partner, insulting Danny in the process. Nevertheless, Peggy agrees and quickly learns how domineering Murray is. He constantly tries to control Peggy's life and even sexually abuses her. 

The arrangement was supposed to be short-term, but just as she is about to marry Danny, Peggy rejects his proposal in a letter as her dancing career is advancing rapidly. Embittered by Peggy's change of mind, Danny continues to thrive in the ring and gets a chance to fight for the world welterweight title.

Arthur Kennedy —  high art in City For Conquest (1940)

Danny gains the upper during the title fight, but the champion cheats by deliberately blinding him with rosin-dusted gloves. Peggy listens to the fight on the radio, in which Danny loses and takes a severe beating, and becomes so distraught that she cannot go onstage that night. Her career as a big-time dancer ends, and she is reduced to dancing in local New York City shows for small wages.

Danny quits boxing due to his damaged eyesight and opens a newsstand with help from his manager, gaining many regular customers. Eddie becomes a successful composer of Broadway songs, but his true love is instrumental music. Danny persuades Eddie to pursue his true calling and continue to work on creating a symphony about New York City. Eddie dedicates his first major symphony at Carnegie Hall to Danny, who proudly listens to the performance on the radio from his newsstand. Sensing Danny's soul in the music, Peggy decides to talk to him, despite believing he is still mad at her. At the newsstand, the two tearfully profess their love for each other and decide to resume their relationship.

As working class stiff Danny Kenny who drives a truck  James Cagney created one of his most gentle screen heroes.

No studio could do a working class film like Warner Brothers and for a guy who eventually makes his living as a prize-fighter, Danny Kenny is one of the more happy-go-lucky and considerate heroes James Cagney created.

Ann Sheridan in City For Conquest (1940)

His pleasures are found in the girl friend he has from the neighbourhood, Ann Sheridan, and in listening to the music of his brother Ed, played by Arthur Kennedy in his film debut. 

Kennedy has ambitions to be a serious composer and Sheridan has ambitions herself to get out of the Lower East Side of New York via show business as a dancer. To realise those ambitions she hooks up with a no good dancer/gigolo in Anthony Quinn.

So interestingly Cagney would have been content to spend his life driving a truck, but he helps his brotehr Ed with his dream and aims to win Ann Sheridan back, by taking up boxing. It all results in some terrible sacrifices he makes for both of them -- and there would be something film noir about this were it not for how easily he takes it all, not even on the nose, but with quite admission and good sprits.

Anatole Litvak creates for Cagney and Sheridan a fine supporting cast to help carry the story along. Donald Crisp is Cagney's manager, Frank McHugh in his best friend, and future director Elia Kazan as another pal from the neighbourhood who becomes a gangster,

Kazan exacts some vengeance on Cagney's behalf, but then he pays for it himself in the most film noir style moments of the feature in a darkly memorable death scene.

James Cagney in City For Conquest (1940)

The notion of urban ambition is the quiet and underpinned film noir theme of the film, in particular the need for ambition in the creative figures of Sheridan the dancer, and Kennedy the composer, with the disastrous effects of Cagney the boxer really arising from the bite of pressure which obliges the urban and suburban dwellers of the emerging marketplace America.

The glory of the epic may have somewhat faded and there is not a great crossover between epic and film noir to begin with, although there are always intersections in the Venn diagram.

Adapted from Aben Kandel's novel, a truck-driver becomes a boxer to help his musician brother and to please his girl, who is a professional dancer.

Arthur Kennedy. Kennedy enjoyed a wonderful career in film and on stage in a variety of roles, but because he wasn't a true leading man and not a Warners "tough guy" like Cagney, Robinson, or Bogart who could graduate into lead roles, he toiled as a supporting actor, earning no less than 5 Oscar nominations. Here he is young and good-looking, and his performance is passionate without being maudlin.

Frank Craven — book-ending bum in City For Conquest (1940)

The 6th New York Film Critics Circle Awards, announced on 30 December 1940, honoured and awarded the best filmmaking of 1940:

Best Film: The Grapes of Wrath

Best Actor: Charlie Chaplin – The Great Dictator

Best Actress: Katharine Hepburn – The Philadelphia Story

Best Director: John Ford – The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home

Best Foreign Film: The Baker's Wife (La femme du boulanger) • France

Special Award: Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski – Fantasia


City For Conquest (1940) at Wikipedia

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