Short Cut To Hell (1957)

Short Cut to Hell (1957) is a  sure fire curious hitman revenge kidnap detective pursuit film noir, shot in black-and-white VistaVision, featuring Robert Ivers and Georgann Johnson in lead roles. 

Notably, it marks the sole directorial production by renowned actor James Cagney.

The film serves as a remake of the 1941 Alan Ladd classic "This Gun for Hire," itself based on Graham Greene's 1936 novel, "A Gun for Sale."

In the plot, professional hitman Kyle Niles (Ivers) accepts a contract for two murders, only to be betrayed by his employer, Bahrwell (Aubuchon). Seeking retribution, Kyle kidnaps Glory Hamilton (Johnson), a singer and girlfriend of the detective pursuing him (Bishop). As the story unfolds, Kyle confronts Bahrwell, ultimately revealing a dormant sense of morality as he seeks justice.

Short Cut to Hell offers a somewhat fuzzy narrative of betrayal, revenge, and redemption, characteristic of classic film noir. With its talented cast and Cagney's directorial debut, the film promises an engaging exploration of moral ambiguity and the human psyche, although perhaps this is all promise and less large on the delivery. Yet still remains a high-ranking example in the category of cats in film noir.

Strange cat / misogyny scene in Short Cut To Hell (1957)

James Cagney's directorial debut, a Paramount VistaVision adaptation of the 1942 classic "This Gun for Hire," falls short of capturing the essence of noir. The film lacks the atmospheric camerawork and exterior shots typical of the genre, settling instead for bland settings and dull lighting on cheap Paramount sets. Robert Ivers, cast as the hitman, fails to convincingly portray a cold-blooded killer, his performance more suited to lighter roles seen in films like "G.I. Blues" and "The Delicate Delinquent."

Out with the woman in Short Cut To Hell (1957)

The standout performance comes from Georgann Johnson, who demonstrates genuine acting prowess amidst the lackluster cast. The plot revolves around a hitman who inadvertently receives stolen money after a job and finds himself on the run from the police. He crosses paths with a woman on a train, played by Johnson, who becomes entangled in his plight and urges him to confess to the authorities.

In with the cat in Short Cut To Hell (1957)

Despite Cagney's efforts, the direction feels odd and insecure, failing to elevate the film beyond its rather straight-forward execution. While the Graham Greene story offers compelling themes of conscience and redemption, the film ultimately falls short of its potential. Cagney's ambitious attempt at directing is marred by the lackluster result, leaving Short Cut To Hell as a forgettable entry in his storied career.

As a favor to an old friend, producer Alex Gordon, James Cagney turned director for the first and only time in his career with Short Cut to Hell. Short Cut To Hell is a remake of the 1942 Veronica Lake / Alan Ladd film "This Gun For Hire". 

Robert Ivers plays Kyle, a hired killer who is double-crossed by his employer Bahrwell (Jacques Aubuchon). Seeking revenge, Kyle is reluctantly teamed with Glory Hamilton (Georgann Johnson), who has been targeted for elimination by Bahrwell and his henchman Nichols (Murvyn Vye). Cagney's direction is sharp and efficient; it's too bad that Short Cut to Hell was his only effort behind the cameras.

Short Cut To Hell (1957) opens with a bizarre misogynistic scene with a cat. The entire opening salvo revolves around this gangster-and-his-cat motif, which aims to please but cannot deliver anything but the slap boot and wrist to a woman who is ejected from the mis en scene.

James Cagney nit at his fittest as director perhaps reliving some earlier era styles and effects. The story is however by the renowned and talented W.R. Burnett.

William Riley Burnett (November 25, 1899 – April 25, 1982) was an American novelist and screenwriter. He is best known for the crime novel Little Caesar, the film adaptation of which is considered the first of the classic American gangster movies.

Burnett was born in Springfield, Ohio, and attended Miami Military Institute in Germantown, Ohio. He left his civil service job in Springfield to move to Chicago when he was 28, by which time he had written over 100 short stories and five novels, all unpublished.

In Chicago, Burnett found a job as a night clerk in the seedy Northmere Hotel. He found himself associating with prize fighters, hoodlums, hustlers and hobos. They inspired Little Caesar (novel 1929, film 1931). The novel's overnight success landed him a job as a Hollywood screenwriter. 

Little Caesar became a classic movie, produced by First National Pictures (Warner Brothers) and starring then little known Edward G. Robinson. Burnett returned to the Al Capone theme in 1932 with Scarface. He won the 1930 O. Henry Award for his short story "Dressing-Up", published in Harper's Magazine in November 1929.

Burnett published a novel or more a year and turned most into screenplays (some as many as three times). Thematically[citation needed] Burnett was similar to Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, but contrasting the corruption and corrosion of the city with the better life his characters yearned for. He portrayed characters who, for one reason or another, fell into a life of crime and were unable to climb out. They typically get one last shot at salvation but the oppressive system closes in and denies redemption.

Absolute classic cats in film noir in Short Cut To Hell (1957)

Burnett wrote for many of the great actors and directors, including Raoul Walsh, John Huston, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, and Michael Cimino, John Wayne (The Dark Command), Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Paul Muni, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. He received an Oscar nomination for his script for Wake Island (1942) and a Writers Guild nomination for his script for The Great Escape. In addition to his film work he also wrote scripts for television and radio.

In High Sierra (1941), Humphrey Bogart plays Roy Earle, a hard-bitten criminal who rejects his life of crime to help a sexually appealing crippled girl. In The Asphalt Jungle (1949), the most perfectly masterminded plot falls apart as each character reveals a weakness. In The Beast of the City (1932) starring Walter Huston, the police take the law into their own hands when the criminals walk free due to legal incompetence.

In later years, with his vision declining, he stopped writing and turned to promoting his earlier work. On his death in 1982, in Santa Monica, California, Burnett was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.

Heywood Broun described Burnett's novel Goodbye to the Past as "written with all the excitement of Little Caesar, and ten times the skill".


  • Little Caesar (Lincoln MacVeagh/The Dial Press - 1929)
  • Iron Man (Lincoln MacVeagh/The Dial Press - 1930)
  • Saint Johnson (Lincoln MacVeagh/The Dial Press - 1930)
  • The Silver Eagle (Lincoln MacVeagh/The Dial Press - 1931)
  • The Beast of the City (Grosset & Dunlap - 1932) [not properly a Burnett novel; credit on the book reads "novelized by Jack Lait, from the screen story by W.R. Burnett"; the book was published concurrently with the release of the M-G-M film, circa March 1932]
  • The Giant Swing (Harper - 1932)
  • Dark Hazard (Harper - 1933)
  • Goodbye to the Past: Scenes from the Life of William Meadows (Harper - 1934)
  • The Goodhues of Sinking Creek (Harper - 1934)
  • Dr. Socrates (O'Bryan House Publishing LLC - 2007) [Originally serialized in Colliers Weekly Magazine in 1935]
  • King Cole (Harper - 1936)
  • The Dark Command: A Kansas Iliad (Knopf - 1938)
  • High Sierra (Knopf - 1941)
  • The Quick Brown Fox (Knopf - 1943)
  • Nobody Lives Forever (Knopf - 1943)
  • Tomorrow's Another Day (Knopf - 1946)
  • Romelle (Knopf - 1947)
  • The Asphalt Jungle (Knopf - 1949)
  • Stretch Dawson (Gold Medal - 1950). The film Yellow Sky (1948) was based on an early version of the novel.
  • Little Men, Big World (Knopf - 1952)
  • Adobe Walls: A Novel of the Last Apache Rising (Knopf - 1953)
  • Vanity Row (Knopf - 1952)
  • Big Stan (Gold Medal - 1953) - written under pseudonym "John Monahan"
  • Captain Lightfoot (Knopf - 1954)
  • It's Always Four O'Clock (Random House - 1956) - written under pseudonym "James Updyke"
  • Pale Moon (Knopf - 1956)
  • Underdog (Knopf - 1957)
  • Bitter Ground (Knopf - 1958)
  • Mi Amigo: A Novel of the Southwest (Knopf - 1959)
  • Conant (Popular Library - 1961)
  • Round the Clock at Volari's (Gold Medal - 1961)
  • The Goldseekers (Doubleday - 1962)
  • The Widow Barony (Macdonald - 1962)
  • The Abilene Samson (Pocket Books - 1963)
  • Sergeants 3 (Pocket Books - 1963)
  • The Roar of the Crowd: Conversations with an Ex-Big-Leaguer (C.N. Potter - 1964)
  • The Winning of Mickey Free (Bantam Pathfinder - 1965)
  • The Cool Man (Gold Medal - 1968)
  • Good-bye, Chicago: 1928: End of an Era (St. Martin's - 1981)

Short stories

  • Round Trip (1929)
  • Dressing-Up (1930)
  • Travelling Light (1935)
  • Vanishing Act (1955)


  • Little Caesar (1930) - script
  • The Finger Points (1931) - script
  • Iron Man (1931) - based on novel
  • Law and Order (1932) - based on novel Saint Johnson
  • Beast of the City (1932) - script
  • Scarface (1932) - script
  • Dark Hazard (1934) - based on novel
  • The Whole Town's Talking (1935) - script and based on short story "Jail Break"
  • Dr. Socrates (1935) - based on short story
  • 36 Hours to Kill (1936) - based on short story "Across the Aisle"
  • Wine, Women and Horses (1937) - based on novel "Dark Hazard"
  • Wild West Days (1937) - from novel Saint Johnson
  • Some Blondes Are Dangerous (1937) - based on novel Iron Man
  • King of the Underworld (1939) - based on short story "Dr Socrates"
  • The Westerner (1940) - uncredited contribution
  • The Dark Command (1940) - from his novel
  • Law and Order (1940) - from his novel
  • High Sierra (1941) - novel, co-script
  • The Get-Away (1941) - script
  • Dance Hall (1941) - from his novel The Giant Swing
  • This Gun for Hire (1942) - script
  • Bullet Scars (1942) - uncredited remake of "Dr Socrates"
  • Wake Island (1942) - script
  • Crash Dive (1943) - story
  • Action in the North Atlantic (1943) - script
  • Background to Danger (1943) - script
  • San Antonio (1945) - story, script
  • Nobody Lives Forever (1946) - based on novel, script
  • The Man I Love (1946) - uncredited contribution to script
  • Belle Starr's Daughter (1948) - story, script
  • Yellow Sky (1948) - based on novel
  • Colorado Territory (1950) - uncredited remake of High Sierra
  • The Asphalt Jungle (1950) - based on novel, uncredited contribution
  • Iron Man (1951) - based on novel
  • The Racket (1951) - script
  • Vendetta (1951) - script
  • Law and Order (1953) - based on novel Saint Johnson
  • Arrowhead (1953) - based on novel
  • Dangerous Mission (1954) - script
  • Night People (1954) - uncredited contribution to script
  • Captain Lightfoot (1955) - based on novel, script
  • Illegal (1955) - script
  • I Died a Thousand Times (1956) - based on novel High Sierra, script
  • Accused of Murder (1957) - based on novel Vanity Row, script
  • Short Cut to Hell (1957) - remake of This Gun for Hire
  • The Badlanders (1958) - based on novel The Asphalt Jungle
  • The Hangman (1959) - uncredited contribution to script
  • September Storm (1960) - script
  • The Asphalt Jungle, television series, 13 episodes (1961) - scripts
  • The Lawbreakers (1961) - script
  • Sergeants Three (1962) - story, script
  • Cairo (1963) - from novel The Asphalt Jungle
  • The Great Escape (1963) - script
  • Four for Texas (1963) - uncredited contribution to script
  • The Jackals (1967) - remake of Yellow Sky
  • Ice Station Zebra (1968) - uncredited contribution to script
  • Stiletto (1969) - uncredited contribution to script
  • Cool Breeze (1972) - from novel The Asphalt Jungle


  • Franklin County, Ohio, Marriage Records, vol. 1918–1922, p. 604
  • Obituary in the New York Times: W.R. BURNET, 82, THE AUTHOR OF 'LITTLE CAESAR' AND 40 FILMS
  •  "Milestones: May 10, 1982". Time. Time Inc. May 10, 1982. Archived from the original on December 2, 2008. Retrieved May 24, 2010.
  •  Advertisement for "Goodbye to the Past", The American Mercury, November 1934, (p. 225).
  • External links[edit]
  • William R. Burnett at IMDb
  • W.R. Burnett bibliography
  • W.R. Burnett (bio), by John Strausbaugh, at The Chiseler
  • W.R. Burnett at
  • W. R. Burnett at Find a Grave
  • “'Pretty Big Once': W. R. Burnett’s Cynical Americana” by Cullen Gallagher, at the Los Angeles Review of Books

Short Cut to Hell (1957)

Directed by James Cagney
Genres - Drama, Thriller  |   Sub-Genres - Crime Thriller, Post-Noir (Modern Noir)  |   Release Date - Sep 1, 1957 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 87 min.  | Short Cut To Hell (1957) Wikipedia

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