The careers of Raoul Walsh and James Cagney were never quite the same after White Heat (1949). As various commentators have suggested, this propulsive, machine-tooled, sardonically funny and often-brutal crime film is the apotheosis of Walsh’s career at Warner Bros. It also offers a fascinating development and summation of the classical gangster genre, and is dominated by one of the most frighteningly committed performances in American cinema.
Cagney’s mother-worshipping, scene-stealing psychopath, Cody Jarrett, is a protean life form driven by truly elemental, even cosmic forces. He constantly batters and rails against the small-minded, technocratic, blandly generic and feckless henchmen and law enforcement officers that veer into his path. In many ways, the film stages a war between the clean-lined and ‘classical’ actions of Jarrett – the failed final heist even manages to self-consciously reference the Trojan Horse of Greek literature – and the endless array of new technology (spectrographs, radio transmitters, telescopic rifles, microscopic fingerprint analyses, and the like) deployed by the often-faceless and inelegantly arrayed T-Men. Although the film also features strong female characters who rise to the challenge of Cody’s star turn – Virginia Mayo’s brassy, double-crossing Verna trades in sardonic putdowns – no one is able to match Cagney’s burning intensity, velocity, mercurial madness and ability to command the stage. The genius of Cagney’s performance is found in its large and small gestures and movements; just look at the way he uses his feet and legs to move through space, open a door or remove the preening Verna from her “pedestal” when she cheekily talks back to him about his Ma looking after “her boy”. When Cody finally blows to kingdom come in the famous finale – “Made it Ma, top of the world!” – it’s hard tell whether it’s he or the vast chemical containers beneath him that spark into combustion.
A precursor to the cataclysmic and brutal “atomic” noirs of the 1950s such as Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955), White Heat’s “unmannered authority”1 and relentless propulsion is testament to the centripetal force, tightly wound energy and unhinged honesty of Cagney’s monumental performance, as well as Walsh’s supremely detailed, steely and “unruffled direction”. 2 Cagney’s deep, animalistic moan and uncontrolled, almost embarrassing stumble down the length of a prison mess-hall table, upon hearing of the unexpected death of his mother, are just one emblem or symptom of this unfettered and boldly physical characterisation. The combination of the truly startled look of the extras and Cagney’s juxtaposition of uncontrolled psychology and balletic movement – look at how he matches his unchained despair with the perfectly timed punches he continues to rein on the prison guards – with Walsh’s methodical and beautifully articulated way of setting up this scene, provides a potent synecdoche for the film’s remarkable juxtaposition of highly stylised action and intense documentary-like detail. As Cagney wallows in the discarded slop of his fellow inmates and is forcibly dragged away by the guards, a sense of genuine relief descends over the set.
Even though Cody is destined to explode – the debilitating poker-hot headaches he suffers are just precursors to that – and leaves few witnesses in his wake, his character is also subject to the occasional flight of fancy, surprising admission and a keenly felt sense of loss. Just watch the moments when Cody famously cradles in the lap of his elderly mother, dedicatedly pulls apart a sprig of some desiccated plant on the way to a robbery, or arrives out of the forest to wax lyrical about how good it felt to talk to his deceased Ma. As in all of Walsh’s best work, and this is truly one of his masterpieces, Cagney’s character carries with him a profound sense of being “in the moment” (in a fashion similar to but distinct from his role in Walsh’s pungently atmospheric The Strawberry Blonde ). White Heat may sound like a machine-regulated, economical and relentless spiral to destruction, but it often finds the feeling for a characteristically Walshian larger world in a simple or even cloaked gesture, the combination of character and lived-in environment, a particular movement of a figure through space, or in the tightly sprung dailiness of criminal life.
The scene is set from the very opening of the film. As a train barrels through the mouth of a tunnel and Max Steiner’s persistently ominous, almost horror-like score stamps itself onto the soundtrack, the film’s title appears in a bold, chunky, rock-like font. It is almost as if the film is being hewn or born from the surrounding terrain. Within minutes we pull away from the opening, white-hot robbery of a train – leaving four dead, one of the gang members fatally scalded, and no doubt of Cody’s capacity for murderous violence – and into a richly atmospheric domestic scene in an unheated mountain hideaway that quickly and expertly establishes the tensions between the members (including Cody’s wife, mother, and assorted hangers-on) of the motley criminal gang. As always in Walsh’s best films, White Heat presents a remarkable and detailed sense of environment. Even though the characters routinely occupy the makeshift surroundings of secluded hideouts, motels, prisons and vehicles on the way to robberies, these places are marked by a crowded sense of physical and experiential detail, the product “differentiation” of modern life (the ‘getaway’ scene at the drive-in is packed with fascinating information, for instance) and busy interior movement. We spend a lot of time in Walsh’s films hanging out with characters who are impatiently waiting for something to happen.
Although White Heat is almost overwhelmed by Cagney’s uninhibited performance, a rogue’s gallery of other vibrant characterisations also populates it. Many of these veer close to the clichés of the gangster genre – the dislikeable and congenitally nervy undercover cop who somehow manages to fool Cody (Edmond O’Brien); the flash and gauche rival for gang leadership and Verna’s affections (Steve Cochran); the cell-mate with a hearing aid who can read lips – but Mayo’s Verna and Margaret Wycherly’s Ma provide truly distinctive, idiosyncratic and troublingly human characterisations. Verna is introduced while snoring in bed, while Ma gloweringly stirs a stew as the gang watches on. Ma quickly emerges as Cody’s chief ally, consigliere and protector, but she also operates as an active member of the gang. Although Verna is perfectly willing and able to betray Cody, there is still a sense of sexual attraction and even hard-won admiration that creeps into their moments together (the sight of Cody piggy-backing Verna to bed late in the film is audacious). But it is Cagney, reluctantly returning to the Warners fold after seven years working as an independent following his Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz, 1942), and Walsh operating at the peak of his considerable powers as a purveyor of “working-class” life, that make White Heat one of the best films of the 1940s. It also caps one of the greatest runs (from 1939’s The Roaring Twenties onwards) of any director at a single Hollywood studio.
White Heat (1949 USA 114 mins)
Prod Co: Warner Bros. Prod: Louis F. Edelman Dir: Raoul Walsh Scr: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, based on the story by Virginia Kellogg Phot: Sid Hickox Ed: Owen Marks Art Dir: Edward Carrere Mus: Max Steiner
Cast: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran, John Archer, Wally Cassell, Fred Clark