Upon being immersed in City for Conquest, it feels like a cast of millions because so many familiar faces make an appearance for any given amount of time. Surely, the most important coupling is James Cagney and Ann Sheridan who are paired much in the same way as Angel With Dirty Faces (1938), playing childhood sweethearts who end up growing up together.
The picture also provides a scintillating film debut for young Arthur Kennedy, forerunning his turn playing the younger brother to another boxer in Champion (1949), opposite Kirk Douglas. Cagney’s not a bad man to have for a brother either and their dynamic is one of the most compelling aspects of this relatively slight drama.
It all begins with a rather peculiar framing device with an all-knowing drifter (Frank Craven) posing his commentary on “The Big Apple” and the world of interpersonal relationships that exist all around him. Because each individual has different talents and aspirations, at its most instinctual level, City for Conquest is about the trajectory of each character in tandem to one another. Thus, the story is most concretely driven by its characters while being enriched by that prototypical Warner Bros. grit and street corner brand of atmosphere.
For one, Danny Kenny (Cagney) tries his luck in the boxing ring taking on the name “Young Sampson,” not necessarily because of ambition but for the pure fact, it puts grub on the table and provides means to pay for his little brother’s musical education. Backed by promoter Scotty MacPherson (Donald Crisp) and supported by buddies Mutt (Frank McHugh) and Pinky (George Tobias), he tenaciously makes his way up the ranks toward the welterweight title.
Although he has nothing to show for it yet, Eddie Kenny (Kennedy) has a knack for compositions and he’s moved his brother with his city symphony, despite his lack of musical knowledge, because music has the power to speak to even everyday folks on a visceral level.
Meanwhile, Peg Nash (Sheridan) is terribly smitten with Danny and yet in the same breath aspires to be a first-class dancer. She meets an arrogant yet talented bloke (Anthony Quinn) out on the dance floor and is enticed with a career just like she’s always dreamed about.
The girl breaks his heart as much as you can break Jimmy Cagney. He takes it like a man while still feeling betrayed. To add insult to injury, his climactic bout is rigged due to the resin dust illegally sprinkled on his opponent’s gloves. Not only does Danny unfairly lose the fight but his career is permanently terminated with his eyesight impeded for good. Eddie shouts for the senseless beating to end as Peg cries to herself over the radio broadcast besides herself over Danny’s loss. It affects Danny physically while the others are casualties of a different kind.
It’s all but inevitable that the picture will end in some gangster knockoff job with the boy’s big shot pal Googie (Elia Kazan) seemingly ready to give the crooked wrenches who tampered with the fight their comeuppance. And the side of the underworld set on the east river with bodies to dispose of certainly has its place. But the underlining factor is despite their struggles, our three protagonists are allowed to find a swatch of contentment.
Eddie is finally able to realize his musical ambitions and gain the repute of the masses in his first show while Danny and Peg are reunited to live life as they were always meant to — together. Though her dancing aspirations have been curtailed and his sight lost, their future remains shimmering with hopefulness.
One could easily comment that City For Conquest‘s themes riff off of Golden Boy in the way music and the boxing ring are juxtaposed, one next to the other. In this case, it’s the two brothers who represent the two seemingly incongruent worlds. And yet the biggest implication is that a rough and tumble guy like Cagney can still have a beating heart and a sensitivity for song even as he goes day in and day out pounding people in the ring. The two worlds are not mutually exclusive by any means.
We certainly know who our main players are but again it’s the robust and jovial nature of the full ensemble making it even more diverting. Ward Bond shows up as a disgruntled cop there, Charles Lane as a no-nonsense promoter here, and Jerome Cowan is ready to rib his competition over a few boxing ring bets. They don’t have to be the focal point because that’s not requisite for being entertaining. I greatly admire the character actors of old for what they are able to create even within meager means.