I confess that I've never been much of a James Cagney fan, but I'm having to revise my views now that I've watched Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, in which he stars as the ruthless gangster Ralph Cotter. The film dates from 1950 and was based on a novel of the same name by Horace McCoy, who is best known as the author of the superb They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
The film opens with a trial scene in which a hammy prosecution lawyer rants about the evil of the accused men (and one woman) who are in the dock. But Cotter, we learn, is there "in spirit" only. We then flash back to a time when Cotter was in prison. He is sprung from jail, but shoots his accomplice, only to be rescued by the accomplice's sister, Holiday Carleton. She's played by Barbara Payton, a glamorous blonde in the finest film noir tradition whose real life story (including four husbands, drink and drug addiction, prostitution, and death at the age of 39) was utterly tragic. This performance shows that she really could act, and what happened to her afterwards is so very sad.
Cotter seduces Holiday, and soon outsmarts a pair of crooked cops with the aid of a dodgy lawyer. Complications ensue when he meets another woman, Margaret Dobson (Helena Carter) whose father is as rich as he is ruthless. Cotter, needless to say, finds temptation impossible to resist. Carter's performance is also a good one, and it's interesting to contrast her fate with Payton's; she quit the movie business after marrying for the second time, in 1953. The world lost a good actor, but she seems to have had a happy life; unlike Payton's, it wasn't a life in the merciless public spotlight.
The screenplay is by Harry Brown, and it includes some very snappy dialogue. The action zings along, although I'm not sure why he bothered with the courtroom framing scenes; I'm not convinced they were necessary or helpful. The film was criticised in some quarters for glamorising crime, but I don't think it does. Cagney is, I must say, very convincing; it's a great performance from him. And the film as a whole is well worth watching.