James Cagney's once-feisty, now-crusty unpretentiousness survives an irritatingly somber tribute to him, "James Cagney: That Yankee Doodle Dandy," on Channel 26 at (or about) 9 tonight. Cagney is interviewed on the set of "Ragtime," his first film in 20 years, and brought leaping back from memory in clips from films he made in the '30s and '40s.

But the 90-minute film was written, produced and directed by Richard Schickel, Time magazine's heavy-hearted movie critic, and Schickel has put into the mouth of narrator Treat Williams too much brooding pseudo-significance. Vampirical types like Schickel seem to delight in draining from movies their blood and life.

Thus Cagney, in his underworld roles, represented, according to Schickel, "the dark side of the American Dream" (that again?), and the role of the deranged outlaw played by Cagney in "White Heat," Schickel says, "went to the heart of his darkness" (Where is Groucho to go "booga-booga-booga"?). Then onto the screen pops the present-day Cagney, and here is this plump old gentleman being flippant and ingenuous about himself and his work. We seem to be in schiz city.

Cagney copied his trademark shrug from a First Avenue pimp, he recalls, and repeated it in films because, "The idea is, if it'll give them something to remember, use it." His commentary on the filmmaking process is summed up, "If the script had a hole in it, we fixed it up." He got the role of his life in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" partly because "they told me that Freddie Astaire turned it down."

And he says "White Heat" was "really essentially a little cheapie" with a leading character whose credibility was increased when Cagney suggested, "Why don't we make him nuts?" Schickel apparently feels the role was such a seminal one that he ignores everything Cagney did after it (including "Love Me or Leave Me"); Cagney may indeed underestimate the impact and reverberations of his screen roles, but that seems a more functional approach than Schickel's, which is to drag Cagney to the analyst's couch and think grave thoughts.

The print quality of all the clips is mysteriously abysmal, but Cagney's brass-knuckled impishness is still fresh, even when he is maliciously shoving a cigar down a smoker's throat or planting that famous grapefruit on Mae Clarke's kisser. He shoots Bogart three times, tells Loretta Young that "for two cents, I'd knock the ears offa ya," and after forcing a reporter literally to eat his words, tells him that if he writes anything more that displeases him, "I'll cut your ears off and mail 'em to your folks."

Norman Mailer (also in "Ragtime") says that no matter what roles Cagney played, "You always had a feeling this was a very decent guy." Pat O'Brien recalls their long friendship. And director Milos Forman, the definitive bore, marvels at Cagney's natural technique.

Cagney is shot in intense close-ups which do him no harm (when he puts his glasses on, he looks a little like the Hobbits' Winston Churchill) but also, strangely, he is sometimes photographed from a low angle that is visually disruptive and pointless. Schickel's interview really produces little that wasn't said on the "Good Morning, America" interviews last year (and if David Hartman can get it, anybody can get it), but Cagney does appear to be in gruffly mellow spirits.

"I'm going back to the farm and sit it out," Cagney says near the interview's end; as all the clips have made clear again, he did about the most any movie star can do. He gave them something to remember.