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Anatole Litvak
James Cagney, Ann Sheridan, Frank Craven, Donald Crisp, Frank McHugh, Arthur Kennedy, George Tobias, Jerome Cowan, Elia Kazan, Anthony Quinn
Writing Credits:
Aben Kandel (novel), John Wexley

A story with all the fire and fury of its two great stars!

A poignant and absorbing look at love, deprivation, and, ultimately, hope, City For Conquest showcases the dynamic James Cagney as Danny, a truck driver turned boxer, and Ann Sheridan as Peggy, an aspiring dancer. When the devoted couple go their separate ways and try to rise out of the poverty in the ghetto of New York's Lower East Side, tragedy ensues.

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Monaural

Runtime: 104 min.
Price: $19.97
Release Date: 7/18/2006

• Audio Commentary with Film Historian Richard Schickel
• “Molls and Dolls: The Women of Gangster Films” Featurette
• “Warner Night at the Movies” Short Subjects Gallery
• “Breakdowns of 1940” Blooper Reel
• 2/19/1942 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast
• Trailer


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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City For Conquest (1940)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 26, 2006)

James Cagney leaves behind his usual gangster role for someone more law-abiding in 1939’s City for Conquest. The story starts as an ode to New York and introduces us to four kids. We meet Danny Kenny the fighter, Googi Sabatini the thief, Danny’s brother Eddie the musician, and Peggy Nash the dancer. The flick then skips ahead to show us the same characters as adults. Danny (Cagney) now boxes, though he refuses to do so as a pro, while Peggy (Ann Sheridan) works at a dime-a-dance spot.

When Eddie (Arthur Kennedy) loses his music school scholarship, Danny finally takes on a fight for money to help his buddy. He wins easily but continues to resist entreaties to take on more matches. In the meantime, suave dancer Murray Burns (Anthony Quinn) enlists Peggy as his partner. This means she spends less time with Danny, a fact that makes him anxious and stressed. Peggy and Burns win lots of dance competitions as she gets more obsessed with succeeding in the profession.

That puts pressure on Danny. She aspires to an upwardly mobile path, whereas he remains content with the status quo. To satisfy her desires, Danny once again agrees to fight professionally. In the meantime, Peggy and Burns go on a dance tour and Murray shows his true stripes when he forces himself on her.

Googi (Elia Kazan) reappears a couple of times. First we see him as a homeless ex-con who gets help from Danny. Later he pops up again in a very different guise. He’s become rich and powerful through illicit methods. The movie follows the arcs of all these characters and how their paths ultimately intersect.

I’m sure I could think of a movie with as awkward an introduction as City, but I’d have to try pretty hard to do so. A poetic hobo (Frank Craven) introduces us to the setting and characters in a truly silly manner. The movie aspires to grandness but falls flat on its face with this florid dopiness.

City never quite recovers from this poor start. (And that leaves aside the unpleasantness of the scene in which adults sit around and cheer as a couple of kids brawl.) The film aspires to a greatness it can’t achieve, and its pretensions cause it to look even worse in the process.

It doesn’t help that City combines mushy characters with an ill-defined plot. The film flits from one premise to another so abruptly that it never gels. One minute it deals with Danny’s boxing, but then it shifts suddenly to Peggy’s dancing. It tosses out the occasional look at Eddie and Googi as well, though it mostly concentrates on Danny and Peggy.

That would be fine if any discernible character arcs occurred. Danny stands as a surprisingly soft character for Cagney. This DVD comes as part of a “Tough Guy Collection”, but I’d be hard-pressed to view Danny as tough. Sure, he’s a boxer, but he’s a somewhat wimpy one. I don’t mind that tone particularly, but the script leaves Danny so bland and vague that Cagney can’t do anything with him.

The same goes for the other actors and scenarios. As City progressed, I continually waited for it to go somewhere. Unfortunately, I waited in vain, as the story never bothered to coalesce and move in any discernible direction. It provided melodrama and tragic turns with no emotion or power.

The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio B/ Bonus B

City for Conquest appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the transfer started poorly, it quickly cleaned up its act.

The main problems occurred during the prologue with the hobo. Those scenes suffered from a lot of specks, marks and other debris. A lot of weird jumps and skips took place, though these didn’t affect the audio, so they didn’t seem to be related to lost snippets.

Some of those still popped up through the rest of the movie, but they came along very infrequently. Source flaws also played a much smaller role. I noticed occasional specks and marks, but these failed to create a substantially negative impression during this generally clean transfer. Note that apparently the prologue was cut from later reissues of City and restored here; that likely accounts for the problems with those segments.

Sharpness looked solid. Only a few small instances of softness cropped up, as the majority of the flick was well-defined and distinctive. I noticed no jagged edges or moiré effects, and edge enhancement failed to create concerns. Blacks were deep and firm, while low-light shots looked smooth and concise. Overall, this was a satisfying transfer. Only the problems with the opening sequence kept it from “B+” territory.

I also thought the monaural soundtrack of City for Conquest worked fine. Actually, it sounded better than expected given the age of the material. Speech was fairly natural and crisp, and I noticed no edginess or flaws. Music was bright and lively, though it lacked low-end response. Effects also seemed clean and clear. There wasn’t much range to the mix, but it was consistently tight and accurate, and I also noticed no signs of source flaws. I thought the audio suited the film well and stood out as quite pleasing for an old soundtrack.

As we move to the DVD’s extras, we start with an audio commentary from film historian Richard Schickel. He provides a running, screen-specific discussion. Schickel gets into cast and performances, issues related to the novel on which the film was based, the movie’s goals and aspirations, various production notes and some specifics about James Cagney.

This commentary works best during the film’s first act. Schickel manages to produce a reasonable number of decent details as he covers various elements related to the flick. Unfortunately, the track soon goes in the crapper. Schickel simply doesn’t create good commentaries, as he often tells us obvious descriptions of the action and falls silent too much of the time. Dead air abounds here, especially as the movie progresses. Schickel starts well enough but loses steam. That means we end up with a generally dull track.

Warner Night at the Movies attempts to replicate the cinematic experience circa 1939. This feature starts with a preview for The Fighting 69th. We also get a period newsreel, an animated short called Stage Fright and a patriotic short entitled Service with the Colors. These are the kinds of pieces that might have preceded a theatrical showing of City, so if you activate this feature, you get an attempt to duplicate a night at the cinema. I really think this is a neat idea.

Next comes a new featurette called Molls and Dolls: The Women of Gangster Films. This 20-minute piece offers archival elements, clips from various movies, and interviews. We hear from film historians Rick Jewell, Drew Casper, Vivian Sobchack, Lincoln D. Hurst and Patricia King Hanson, film producer Robert Evans, Black Caesar writer/director Larry Cohen, Bogart co-author Eric Lax, directors Anthony Slide, Lili Fini Zanuck, and Martin Scorsese, Sin City writer/director Frank Miller, screenwriters Nicholas Pileggi and Michael B. Druxman, and actors Theresa Russell, Michael Madsen and Talia Shire. The show looks at various females featured in gangster flicks. It distinguishes “molls” from “dolls” and gives us examples of both. We also see their development through various movies and eras. The grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy receives particular emphasis.

Though “Molls” boasts the potential to become quite insightful, it remains too superficial to really succeed. The program skips through its subject way too quickly and with too few distinct specifics. It doesn’t even bother to name all the actors and films depicted. We don’t get enough meat for this piece to prosper.

For an “audio-only” feature, we discover a 2/9/1942 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast. This 59-minute and 10-second piece loses the original actors and uses Alice Fay and Robert Preston as Peggy and Danny instead. Most of these Lux shows chopped out a fair amount of movie material, but this one seems especially abbreviated. It drops the prologue with the characters as children and makes both Eddie and Googi even less important to the story.

That means it strongly concentrates on Danny and Peggy, though Burns plays an important part as the villain. He’s not quite as nasty here; there’s no implied rape ala the movie, as he backs off when Peggy says “no”. I have no real problem with the pared-down story, but Preston’s performance is a dog. He comes across more like Lon Chaney Jr. in Of Mice and Men than he does like Cagney. He makes Danny seem like a total moron, and he actively harms the show. It’s still cool to get this as an archival addition, but it’s one of the crummier Lux performances I’ve heard.

In addition to the film’s trailer, we find Breakdowns of 1940. This 11-minute and 50-second blooper reel runs for and includes the usual assortment of goofs and silly moments. Although I usually don’t like blooper reels, the age of this package makes it more interesting. It’s entertaining to see behind the curtain of the era’s films.

If City for Conquest ever developed a purpose, I missed it. The movie meandered along through its lackluster stories and characters. It failed to demonstrate much coherence and never brought me into its world. The DVD offered very nice picture and audio along with some good extras. The audio commentary disappoints, but we get enough nice pieces to make it a solid package. I wasn’t wild about this movie, but I can’t gripe about its fine treatment on DVD.

Note that you can buy City for Conquest alone or as part of a six-movie “Tough Guys Collection”. The latter packages City with San Quentin, Bullets or Ballots, A Slight Case of Murder, ”G” Men, and Each Dawn I Die. This set is a steal for folks who want to own the various movies. It retails for about $60, which equals the list price of three of the DVDs separately. It’s like a “buy three, get three free” deal and is a real bargain.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.75 Stars Number of Votes: 4
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