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Each Dawn I Die (1939)

by on 2013/03/10

Each_Dawn_I_Die_1939“I found a square guy.”

* * *

In my youth, I was powerfully attracted to the idea of the crusading reporter – a writer who exposes corruption and fights for the little guy. I loved the idea so much that I went as far as to become a reporter myself very early in my career.

I discovered that you can change things for the better – even if just a little bit – when you write about them. Without having to dig very deep at all, I also discovered corruption, conflicts of interest, fraud and outright dishonesty are everywhere.

Each Dawn I Die is about a reporter with convictions who is then um, convicted for a crime he didn’t commit.

James Cagney is Frank Ross a hard-charging reporter who is hot on the trail of graft and corruption in the halls of justice and in offices of a large construction concern. When Ross gets too close for comfort, hired hoods club him unconscious, douse him with whiskey, shove him in front of the wheel of his car, and send the car careening out of control into an intersection, killing three people.

In these days before breathalyzers, Ross is sent down to do hard time in prison, and frankly, so do we. You get to feel every ounce of the tedium, the hopelessness, the sense of unease, the stir-crazy frustration. There are long days in the hole and Cagney is in howling, raging form.

You also learn a lot about making twine. A lot. Ross works a prison job at a twine factory and that’s the site of most of the prison intrigue.

The real magic of this movie is in the interplay between Cagney and George Raft, as convicted crook and prison lifer called Hood Stacey. I used to not really understand what charisma meant until I laid eyes on Cagney – he’s basically made up of sinew and charisma. And Raft was no slouch himself in the charisma department.

This film centres around a sound little idea – a crook who never lies helping a noble guy out of an impossible situation. The moments where Raft and Cagney were up there on the screen, even down on the floor under the twine thresher, were snap-crackle-pop charisma-crunchy goodness.

Overall, you also get a solid sense that prison is probably not a whole bunch of fun from this movie. Watching the Ross devolve in solitary confinement, lose his mind in front of his parole board, see the prison snitch get shanked at Friday night at the movies and generally see prison guards’ abuse their power – this all combined to make me not wish prison on just about anyone. (There are a few exceptions though.)

Between this and The Shawshank Redemption, I don’t think I’ll come to so much as a rolling stop at a stop sign.

* * *

92 minutes

Rated PG for punching, shank stabbing, and prisoners and prison guards very behaving badly

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