Friday Film Noir
White Heat has James Cagney so hot not even the world can stop him…
Where would people be without their mothers? Whether by birth, adoption, or simply maternal figures, these great dames have, since time immemorial, commanded love, admiration, respect, and devotion from their children. Codes of conduct, signs of affection, life lessons, mothers are so often considered the obvious heart and soul of one’s family, the father more commonly seen as the backbone. Appreciation for one’s own mother and, at the very least, respect for another’s mother is understood as basic concepts that, if challenged, speak gravely ill of the offending party. Sometimes the devotion stretches too far, venturing into eerie symbiosis, as was the case with poor Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho (1960). While James Cagney’s Arthur ‘Cody’ Jarrett in White Heat does not belong in quite the same category as Bates, his closely-knit relation with his dear mom (Margaret Wycherly) does encourage some rather unhealthy behaviour.
Who exactly commandeers the gang who performs an elaborate and death-defying train ambush at the start of the picture is open to debate. The easy answer is the cantankerous, brash, and violent Cody, for he is the one barking orders to his small band of misfits during the complex, treacherous mission. Upon returning to their house nestled in the countryside, it becomes apparent that the imposing Cody takes many cues from his mother and is quite dependent on her. He clearly shows more love and respect towards ‘ma’ than he does his wife Verna (Virginia Mayo), or his followers, least of all ‘Big Ed’ Somers (Steve Cochran) who may have ideas of his own as to who should rule their party…and eyes for Verna. Cody, in an attempt to avoid being collared for the murder of the victims in the films’ opening train sequence, actually gives himself in for a lesser crime and as such is sentenced to a shorter-term in prison. The police, desperate to learn who Cody’s more critical criminal liaisons are, send undercover cop Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) as an inmate to artificially stir a kinship with the crazed crook, but who can really get as close to Cody as his mother?
Raoul Walsh’s White Heat is a very interesting inclusion in the film noir family for the fact that it is just as frequently accepted as a gangster picture as it is a noir. Truth be told, the gangster films of the 30s and early 40s are sometimes understood as being the precursors to the noir genre which sprouted a few years later. The former, while undeniably amusing, were definitely the simpler films from the standpoint of characterization of their protagonists and social commentary. Noir, good noir at least, has more complexity about it, which is how White Heat flirts with both genres. It is easy to liken Cagney’s Cody Jarrett to his breakout 1931 role Tom Powers in The Public Enemy, and the comparison is justified, but Cody is a much more layered, unpredictable character than Powers ever was. Cody can pump his chest and threaten meek all he likes, the fact of the matter is he is a nuanced personality.
Searing the screen like the death-blast of a sub-machine gun!
The dichotomy between his depiction in the opening action scene and the subsequent moments back at their temporary shelter speaks volumes about how this man thinks and behaves. When in the thick of a heist or an attack, there is none more dangerous or deadly than Cody. Frequently throughout the movie, the gangster demonstrates appallingly violent tendencies (specific spoilers shall be avoided, but suffice to say that the car trunk scene is, in one word, shocking), but he also suffers from real headaches which literally bring him to his knees (headaches which, as viewers eventually learn, originated as attempts to win the attention of Ma when he was a boy) and constantly heeds the advice of his mother. She nurses him when nursing is required, gives him a lift in confidence when a lift is in order, proving to be everything most think a mother should, only she encourages him to further his illegal exploits for their collective personal gain. In return, Cody is forever grateful and devout. Mother-son relationships are at their best when both sides get along, granted, but this is one relationship that would be best broken up. Cody does not even provide the same level of unconditional love to his own wife. Later on, when Cody is behind bars, Ma brings news that Verna has made off with his most important rival, ‘Big Ed.’ Unperturbed, Cody casually explains that both will get their comeuppance once he is free, a line that perfectly encapsulates the depths Cody is willing to venture to in order to preserve his sense of order and get what he believes is coming to him.
The film definitely benefits from putting as much emphasis on James Cagney as it does. The actor is in tip-top shape, reminding viewers that, 18 years after his legendary performance in The Public Enemy, he still has what it takes to play an absolutely vicious wretch. Some of his better moments however are when Cody is more at ease, the highlight being when sharing some of his most personal thoughts on Ma with O’Brien’s undercover cop the night before a major heist. Cagney knew perfectly well how to play things up as well as how to keep energy in check depending on the scene. The reason why it can be argued the film benefits from concentrating so much on Cagney is not that everything else is poor in comparison, but it certainly struggles to keep up. Edmond O’Brien, himself no slouch by any stretch of the imagination, is fine here but not even close to Cagney’s level of magnetism. Virginia Mayo is really quite good although her role is fairly limited. Margaret Wycherly is arguably the actress who gives the second-best performance in the film as Ma. She may be getting up there in years, yet she still has the guts and the smarts to outwit the police and hold her fort together in times of strife. The movie also spends a fair amount of time with the police who plan Hank Fallon’s undercover prison mission and their subsequent tracking of Cody’s every move, and whilst not without their merits as snippets into police work back in the mid 20th century such scenes would be more compelling in a traditional procedural. In White Heat, after a few minutes away from Cody Jarrett viewers want more of him rather than learn about police radio frequencies.
Even though White Heat is not jam-packed with scenes of action, when said moments do erupt the results are amazing to behold, culminating in one of the most talked and written about climaxes in cinema history, a bravura showcase of stunt work, effects work, cinematography, editing and acting. Director Walsh knew what he had on his hands: an opportunity to make a great gangster film starring James Cagney that actually has nuance and depth. While there are a few stretches wherein the focus is taken off the star of the show, Walsh is sure to always speedily bring the film back to its powerful, emotional core. There is no doubt that with this performance, James Cagney was indeed on top of the world.