Saturday Night Cinema: White Heat

Tonight Saturday Night Cinema classic in the film noir masterpiece,”White Heat.” Cagney is first-rate — deliciously manic and manifestly evil. But he is not celebrated, unlike the exaltation of evil in today’s “films.”

Brilliant direction and visual style.

Bosley Crowther opined, “The simple fact is that Mr. Cagney has made his return to a gangster role in one of the most explosive pictures that he or anyone has ever played.”
TIME Magazine 1949: White Heat (Warner) is in the hurtling tabloid tradition of the gangster movies of the ’30s, but its matter-of-fact violence is a new, postwar style. Brilliantly directed by Raoul (Roaring Twenties) Walsh, an old master of cinema hoodlumism, it returns a more subtle James Cagney to the kind of thug role that made him famous.

Playing a paunchy, mother-dependent killer, Cagney empties his pistol into his victim with the calm, preoccupied expression of a pedestrian waiting for a street light to change. There is none of the shock technique of The Public Enemy —no audience-deafening gun blasts, no close-ups of the killer’s eyes or of the sickening sprawl of the corpse. The new brutality is streamlined. .White Heat is sprinkled with an improved type of wrist action in blackjacking, so effective that the camera does not even bother to examine the victim. The traditional movie chase, with its essentially simple machinery, has evolved into a studious, highly technical battle in which the combatants use telephones, oscillators, triangulation equipment and poker faces.

White Heat cuts so deeply into the characters of its big-time hijackers that for once movie gangsters look as humanly criminal as the “wanted” faces on a post office bulletin board. The leading character, a scientific hijacker, is completely abnormal, but Cagney plays him in a stodgy workingman style that makes him as believable as the most ordinary man. Blandly out of contact with reality, the hijacker is seen in a typical shot collecting refuse in the prison workshop, a dumpy figure wearing an expression of near-senile rumination and apparently having the time of his life. His mother (Margaret Wycherly) is a fierce, puritanical type who pampers her son with his favorite strawberries and treats federal agents as though they were bureaucratic busybodies. Another odd creation is the restlessly affectionate gun moll (Virginia Mayo), a swirly blonde with a complicated mobile technique for kissing, getting out of bed and looking in the mirror.

Form-conscious Director Walsh can set up a trivial shot of gangsters listening to a car radio in a windswept mountain lideout, and make grey weather, the texture of trees and the vitality of the figures add up to visual pleasure. An unaffected director of home and bedroom scenes, he even manages, without bathos or leer, to jet away with a shot of Cagney sitting on lis mother’s lap.
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James Cagney Back as Gangster in ‘White Heat,’ Thriller Now at the Strand

By Bosley Crowther, September 3, 1949

Warner Brothers weren’t kidding when they put the title “White Heat” on the new James Cagney picture, which came to the Strand yesterday. They might have gone several points higher in the verbal caloric scale and still have understated the thermal intensity of this film.

Empire Online:

It was over a decade since cinema had witnessed a genuine gangster. The imposition of the Production Code in 1934 had just about put paid to the violin case-carrying hood of the age, while nothing as unpatriotic as crime was allowed near American screens during World War II.

Increasingly affluent audiences didn’t want to be reminded of the prohibition-depression era and, consequently, the very nature of movie crime changed. Instead of being career criminals with a killing complex and delusions of grandeur, the anti-heroes of the film noir boom were essentially decent saps who were led astray by their adverse post-war circumstances or tempted into indiscretion by a smouldering femme fatale.

So James Cagney was definitely bucking a trend when he decided to return to the gangster flick in mid-1949. Swallowing his pride, after the disappointing performance of Cagney Productions, he re-signed to Warner Brothers — the studio from which he had parted six years earlier — and allowed himself to be talked into Raoul Walsh’s White Heat. However, this wasn’t quite the capitulation it seemed. Such was Cagney’s determination to shake his persona that since The Roaring Twenties (1939) he had refused to even read crime scripts. But, his desperate need for a hit after a string of misfires was equally pressing and so he agreed to work with the man who had so successfully remoulded Humphrey Bogart’s screen image in High Sierra (1941).

Walsh planned to move Cagney out of his overly familiar tenements and into a rural setting more akin to a modern-day Western than an old-fashioned mob movie. Moreover, he was happy to acquiesce in Cagney’s insistence on placing an emphasis on recent advances in scientific detection to ensure that the picture carried a “crime does not pay” message. But screenwriters Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts were far more interested in the psychology of the psychotic. Thus, they sought to depict Cody Jarrett as a megalomaniac doomed by his own failings to destruction.

The inspiration for their story was Ma Barker, although they distilled the violent malevolence of her four sons into a single figure. As played by Margaret Wycherly, it’s easy to see how such a mother could have engendered Cody’s cynical, calculated approach to crime (especially bearing in mind the implied oedipal nature of their relationship). But it’s also intimated that Jarrett was born with the mental fragility that so frequently tipped him over the edge and, thus, made him marginally less morally responsible for his actions. Some critics have claimed he’s an epileptic. But, whatever the cause of his mania, he is, like Hans Beckert in M, a victim of destiny.
The ferocity of Ma’s hold over Jarrett is most clearly evident in the prison mess-hall sequence. Having learned of her death, he hurtles down the table lashing out at guards and cons alike in frenzied distress. The scene is rendered all the more shockingly realistic by the fact that not only did Cagney reproduce the pitiful screaming he remembered from his father’s drinking bouts, but Walsh didn’t tell the 300 or so extras what was going to happen, hence the genuine bewilderment in their expressions. The scene deeply disturbed Cagney, however, and after a preview screening he refused to watch the film ever again.

Yet for all the violence and anguish, there’s also a dark undercurrent of comedy. It’s almost as if Cagney were parodying his previous incarnations. Just as he pushed a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face in The Public Enemy (1931), here he knocks Virginia Mayo off a chair as she shows off her new fur. Similarly, he also has a number of callous one-liners, none more heartless than the one which follows his silencing of a stool-pigeon’s muffled cries as he riddles a car boot with lead — “Oh, stuffy, huh? I’ll give you a little air.” With its 13 slayings, White Heat was hot stuff for 1949, prompting Bosley Crowther of the New York Times to declare it was “A cruelly vicious film”, and that “its impact upon the emotions of the unstable or impressionable is incalculable”. He was also prepared to concede that, “Mr. Cagney achieves the fascination of a brilliant bullfighter at work, deftly engaging in the business of doing violence with economy and grace”.

Bridging the gap between the rise-and-fall pictures of the 1930s and the syndicate dramas that would dominate the 1950s, the film ends with a symbolic mushroom cloud, as Cody blows up a gas tank rather than be taken alive. It was also a token gesture on Cagney’s behalf, as rarely again would he be such a potent screen force as this.


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