Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - White Heat (#33)

The Favorites - White Heat (#33)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. White Heat (1949/USA/dir. Raoul Walsh) appeared at #33 on my original list.

What it is • Eighteen years after his breakthrough in The Public Enemy, long after the model of lean, ruthless Warner gangster pictures had been replaced by brooding, psychological noir, James Cagney played perhaps his most iconic hoodlum. Cody Jarrett, a middle-aged holdup man, is bloodthirsty and brutal with only one weakness - a Freudian devotion to his equally hardbitten Ma (Margaret Wycherly), the only person who can soothe his splitting migraines. Taking the rap for a petty robbery to avoid a much more serious sentence, he finds himself bunkmates with undercover Treasury agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien), who later escapes with him and tries to prevent the next big heist. In the pre-Code era, gangsters were allowed to carry the films by themselves, but later crime films often shifted the focus toward law enforcement, pre-emptively censoring the antisocial tendencies of the genre. Hank is our "good guy" in this film but it's hard not to fall for Cagney's charismatic psychosis. The scene in which he climbs on top of the commissary table, kicking, screaming, and punching out guards in a grieving (but perhaps calculated) temper tantrum is a tour de force of a certain type of acting, neither Method nor classical technique, physical but rooted in emotion.

Why I like it •
I love Cagney. On a shortlist of favorite movie stars, male and female, old and new, he's near the very top. Watching him perform is like witnessing a virtuoso musician or a superstar athlete: the response isn't something you filter through your brain, it's immediately electric. There's a sharklike charm to his early gangster flicks but this one is my favorite. Cagney is nasty, funny, and at times genuinely sympathetic though the film never tiptoes around his evil (within the first few minutes, he's murdered innocent civilians in cold blood). White Heat relocates the urban warfare of Prohibition thugs to the wilderness and open roads of the American West (although the climax takes place at an oil rig in Long Beach, itself a kind of terminal point for Western flight). It also shifts the sensibility from post-World War I fury to post-World War II introspection. Raoul Walsh brings the same rugged mixture of gangster and western motifs that he conveyed in High Sierra, hinting that American crime isn't simply a matter of immigrants carrying violence to the big city: it can be unearthed deep in our heartland as well, and perhaps its natural home is the Western frontier. (Other notable filmmakers to strike this wilderness-crime note are Nicholas Ray, in They Live by Night and On Dangerous Ground, and Jacques Tourneur in Out of the Past.) I really respond to this mixture of elements, and it's worth noting that Twin Peaks, with its shady goings-on in a Pacific Northwest mountain town, is loosely part of this same tradition - although its universe is more bounded than the open-road approach of White Heat. The end of the film is also (literally) spectacular, suggesting that the momentum of the crime genre, especially in the anxious postwar world, was charging toward an inevitable apocalypse, one culminated six years later in Kiss Me Deadly, in which another L.A. beachfront property bursts into flames.

More from me • White Heat has never been covered on this site before - welcome to the first (brief) review!

How you can see it • Available for digital rental/purchase on YouTube, Amazon, and other sites, White Heat can also be rented on blu-ray/DVD from Netflix.

What do you think? • Which style do you respond to more - the pre-Code gangster pictures of the early thirties, or forties film noir? What's your favorite crazy Cagney moment in the film? Do you think the subplot about the Treasury agent detracts from the movie, adds to it, or has no impact on its core virtues?

• • •

Tomorrow: Easy Rider (#32)


noirencyclopedia said...

A great summary of why I too love this movie! My general preference is for yer actual noir rather than gangster movies, but this is one of those that bends the rules -- to a noir purist it's outside the genre, but it has the noir feel an' the noir themes an' . . .

Joel Bocko said...

It's funny, I didn't really think of it that much as noir until I was writing this (even though I must have run across it on various noir lists, and probably even discussed it in that context once or twice). I suppose Cagney's presence makes me classify it primarily as a "gangster" movie despite all the ways it doesn't quite fit that template (primarily that he's not part of any ethnic crime syndicate, unlike his early roles, or most later entries in that genre).

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