Monday, August 27, 2012

White Heat

WHITE HEAT           B                       
USA  (113 mi)  1949  d:  Raoul Walsh

They think they got Cody Jarrett…they haven’t got Cody Jarrett.
—Cody Jarrett (James Cagney), just before his inevitable demise                     

By the late 1940’s, James Cagney was sick of making gangster movies like THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), and THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), films that made him a star, but also typecast him as a tough guy, where he begged Warner Brothers to offer him more variety in his roles, the most successful of which was, of course, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942), where his range as a song and dance man and American composer was utterly remarkable.  But his career floundered after that, making only four films between 1943 and 1948, so by 1949 he had a new contract at Warners and a commitment to make yet another gangster movie, but this time he hadn’t played a gangster in over a decade and he was 50 years old.  With that in mind, they created an iconic role in WHITE HEAT that will forever be associated with him, Cody Jarrett, an outlaw every bit as ruthless as the characters he portrayed earlier, but also energetic and humorous, perhaps a bit savvier, though he’s more of a savage brute here, a seriously disturbed criminal, a deranged psychopath with a mother complex and debilitating fits from migraine headaches, the predecessor to Hitchcock’s Norman Bates in PSYCHO (1960).  While poverty was the driving force behind criminal behavior during the Depression of the 1930’s, with gangleader Cody Jarrett it’s a massive ego and a feeling of invincibility.  He’s indifferent to the needs of anybody else except himself and his mother, Ma Jarrett, Margaret Wycherly, who played Gary Cooper’s saintly mother in SERGEANT YORK (1941), the only person Cody can rely upon and trust.  Loosely based on the life of Ma Barker and her boys, another outlaw gang that gripped the American public during the 30’s, Ma is hard as nails, but overly protective of her boy, basically running the gang during Cody’s absences, handling the money and giving out orders.  

WHITE HEAT is designed to be the last of the gangster pictures, the end of an era when career criminals could generate any public sympathy, where instead they are seen as disturbed, antisocial sociopaths living on the fringe of society, where policework was becoming more in vogue with the public, showing signs of more modern and sophisticated methods that were highly popular with the public, especially with the advent of the television series Dragnet (1951 – 59).  While the late 40’s is the height of film noir, this film is often mis-categorized as noir due to the blatant criminality on display.  Despite the eccentric psychological implications, which are never explored, and the over-the-top performance from Cagney, this is really just a formula gangster picture, where Cody Jarrett is an apocalyptic character already out of step with the times, the last of his era.  Cagney indicated he never told Margaret Wycherly how he intended to play his migraine fits, where even in the film the audience is not sure whether to laugh or cower in fear, as his onscreen behavior was just so unexpected to 1949 audiences.  A childhood friend of John Barrymore in New York City, director Raoul Walsh was probably the most competent craftsman under contract with Warner Brothers, a director who knew how to utilize outdoor locations and drive the action with an unrelentingly fast pace through editing sequences, an example of classical Hollywood filmmaking, including the musical scoring by Max Steiner that never stands out, but matches the mood onscreen.  Even the impressive opening train robbery sequence is a skilled example of setting up the tension by matching the speed of the arriving car (carrying outlaws) with the approaching train (carrying money), where the outlaws, especially Jarrett, are trigger happy, leaving no witnesses.     

The film spends an inordinate amount of time and effort attempting to highlight modern police methods, especially radio tracking technology, not so interesting today as it slows down the pace and removes some of the built-up tension.  Admittedly, some of the side characters never rise above type, including Virginia Mayo as Jarrett’s well dressed but perpetually complaining wife Verna, or Steve Cochrane as Big Ed, the slick haired man supposedly making a bid to take over the gang, or Edmond O’Brien, an undercover cop named Vic Pardo who becomes chummy with fellow inmate Cody Jarrett while in the slammer, trying to get him to reveal information to help build a case against him.  Next to Cagney, O’Brien is really bland and boring, of questionable moral character himself, though there are tense moments when his true police identity might be discovered, but the prison sequences really drag after Jarrett cunningly turns himself in for a lesser crime with the knowledge he’d be out in a year or so.  While there are a few moments, such as an attempt on his life and a memorable prison visit from Ma, who’s intense stubbornness seems to run in the family, it’s her later demise (happening offscreen, discovered by Jarrett through a line of convicts whispering what happened into the ear of the convict sitting next to them at dinner) that leads to a major scene of Cagney having a manic fit on the floor of the prison, taking out half a dozen guards in the process, leading to a departure from the originally planned jailbreak.  Once Jarrett is out, he has to set matters straight, especially with Big Ed and a guy that nearly kills him in prison, an inmate Cody makes sure comes along during the breakout.  As the equilibrium among criminals is being restored, the police obtain the upper hand through Pardo’s ability to tip off the cops and then place a homemade electronic honing device on the truck being used in their next big heist.  What makes this film iconic is the legendary finale, expressed with a kind of psychotic glee rarely seen elsewhere, as Cagney simply operates on another level as everyone else.  When the cops surprise his gang with numbers and chase him up the steps of a fuel refinery storage tank, hopelessly surrounded and wounded but not out of it, it’s his refusal to go out quietly that we all remember.  With flames shooting up all around him before the self-inflicted final blast that has atomic age written all over it, Cagney shouts out to the ghost of his dead mother, “Made it, Ma. Top of the world!”—a fitting epitaph for Cody Jarrett.

This film may suffer from star power, much like John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (1956), where the audience tends to over-identify with Cagney, despite his murderous, psychopathic tendencies, as they do with John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, a known Indian hater, where it seems hard to believe that when the film was made, Warner Brothers, who produced both films, felt audiences would identify with Edmond O’Brien’s Vic Pardo, thinking he was the hero of the film.  But Pardo’s character is too morally conflicted, as the mere concept of a jailhouse spy is not anyone’s idea of a hero.  Pardo was treated well by Jarrett, and was privy to a more human side of him, as Jarrett actually opened up to him, which makes his double cross all the more demoralizing, especially his escape, where the police actually use excessive force, never even attempting to bring in any of the outlaws alive.  Instead they were all killed, the entire gang, except one fellow inmate who surrenders near the end.  This may be a case of writers and studios thinking so highly of themselves that they actually believe they know better than the public, but audiences loved Cagney and Wayne, where they have become American icons with a longstanding public adulation, where despite their association with violence in pictures, they are beloved family idols where kids at an early age actually look up to them as role models.  This is not to suggest either Cody Jarrett or Ethan Edwards are role models, but kids, especially at an early age, are conflicted over this issue, as onscreen they appear to be the heroes.  They’re the strongest characters onscreen and they always carry the action.  So for kids, if there’s any movie character to emulate, it’s the Cagney or Wayne figure.  Their hateful or murderous tendencies are secondary to the power of their performances, where even for adults, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer manic energy of Cagney’s Jarrett as he eats a chicken drumstick in one hand while shooting the rat who finked on him in prison with the other.  He’s as entertaining as they come, and his sheer willpower dominates the picture, which is what endears him to audiences even as they know he’s a loathsome psychotic killer who probably deserves the electric chair. 

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