Danny Kenny (James Cagney) isn’t a man with big dreams. He likes working as a truck driver, he’s got his girlfriend Peggy (Ann Sheridan), he’s got a roof over his head, what more could he want? Well, he could use some extra cash so that he can send his musician brother Eddie (Arthur Kennedy) to music school. To get the money he needs, he starts participating in boxing matches. He’s a great boxer, but he doesn’t want to make a career out of it.
Peggy, on the other hand, has loftier ambitions. She loves to dance, and when she meets fellow dancer Murray Burns (Anthony Quinn), it’s immediately clear that they make great dancing partners. They keep entering and winning dance contests around New York, and when they have the chance to get into the vaudeville circuit, she can’t resist the opportunity and leaves Danny behind. Danny decides to make something of his life and starts pursuing boxing more seriously in the hopes of winning Peggy back.
Danny fights his way to the top, and when he’s in the same town for a fight as Peggy is for a show, he goes to see her. She still loves him and they decide to get married as soon as her tour is over. But when she gets another big opportunity, she’s in a position where she just can’t say no. Danny becomes even more determined to win her back, and when he’s fighting for a championship title, he refuses to give up, even when his opponent puts rosin on his boxing gloves and blinds Danny by rubbing the rosin in his eyes.
City for Conquest is exactly the type of movie you think of when you think of Warner Brothers. It’s tough and gritty, it’s got James Cagney in top form, and it’s even got some songs you’ll recognize from other classic Warner Brothers hits such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. Anthony Quinn was perfectly slimy as Murray and it was really interesting to see Elia Kazan in one of his few acting roles. It’s not the same caliber as The Public Enemy or Angels With Dirty Faces, but it is pretty enjoyable.
For my money though, Ann Sheridan was a big scene stealer. She did such a good job as Peggy, especially in the scene where she comes back to her hotel room and finds Murray and their manager waiting to tell her about their new big deal. It’s easy to see Peggy as nothing more than an ambitious woman, but I think she’s more complex than that. Peggy’s got a dream and when she and Murray started to make it, of course she got stars in her eyes and gladly said yes to anything that she thought would make it happen. But then she found out the man she trusted to help her is a controlling, abusive monster. She wanted to get away from him but was deeply conflicted between wanting to leave him and not wanting to give up on her dream. And then when she finally does get away from him, she ends up broke because she made the mistake of letting Murray control all the money. They could have done an alternate version of this movie told from Peggy’s perspective and it could have been pretty interesting.