Friday, February 6, 2009

White Heat: Film Noir to Scorch the Screen

White Heat was the last, great film noir of the 1940s, a picture that has lost none of its power to astonish and amaze.

James Cagney stars as Cody Jarrett, a mama-obsessed psychopath on a rampage of robbery and murder. White Heat ranks among the greatest films of the genre, unfolding with shocking violence (for its day), incredible dialogue, and a story lifted from Sophocles.

A bit of plot
Jarrett and his gang stage a daring daylight train robbery, murdering the railroad employees as they seize the loot. One of Jarrett's gang is mortally wounded in a freak accident during the raid. Decamping to their hideout, the robbers mull over what to do with their dying colleague. Jarrett's bug-eyed psychosis becomes obvious as he suffers a crippling seizure while arguing with an underling. But his devoted Ma (Margaret Wycherly, The Yearling), who is almost as dangerous as her grown son, comforts Cody and makes sure the gang does not see him in this compromised state. Any sign of weakness could lead to a power grab by Jarrett's associates: thieves and killers all.

Jarrett decides to take it on the lam with his sultry but duplicitous wife (Virginia Mayo, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) and calculating mother. As the cops close in, he hatches a plan to take the rap for a lesser crime committed by a hood in another state so he can avoid a death sentence for the railroad caper. His psychosis worsens in prison as undercover cop Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien) joins the inmates in an attempt to ingratiate himself with Jarrett and finagle a confession out of this killer. (Side note: A versatile character actor, O'Brien played Gringoire in the definitive 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He worked steadily during a 40-year career, collaborating with such cinematic luminaries as Cecil B. DeMille and John Frankenheimer.)

The men escape prison and plot a final heist as Jarrett creeps around town, settling scores with the double-crossers in his old gang. But stupid blunders by his colleagues, and even his aging mother, allow the police to triangulate Jarrett's position and corner the gang at an oil refinery for the justly famous, climactic confrontation.

Under the taut direction of Raoul Walsh (High Sierra), Cagney and the rest of the cast create an indelible portrait of criminals whose honor and trust exist only at gunpoint. Today the film is best remembered for Cagney's harrowing performance as a crazed psychotic, quick with a crude quip and a volatile temper that finds release only in murder. Cagney was a three-time best-actor Oscar nominee, winning for Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1943. That film and White Heat represent his most enduring work, followed by The Public Enemy (1931), a positively feral film in which Cagney famously mashes a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face.

As Cody’s morally flexible wife Verna, Virginia Mayo isn't quite a femme fatale in the classic mold, although her shifty opportunism keeps viewers guessing about her motives and schemes. Margaret Wycherly's performance as Ma Jarrett is a small treasure of the cinema. Her beady eyes, practically shimmering with madness, provide the first of many clues that Cody’s own deranged state has its origins in heredity. It is a stunning performance, every bit the equal of Cagney’s work. Wycherly had won an Academy Award in 1941 for another maternal role, that of Gary Cooper’s kindly mother in Sergeant York – the very antithesis of her work as Ma Jarrett in this classic gangster flick.

White Heat offers much more to amaze the first-time viewer. The violence is outrageous for a film made during the censorial reign of the Hays Code. Dialogue drips with venomous sarcasm. And in the 60 years since the film's release, no other mainstream movie has explored madness and unpleasant Oedipal obsession with such grim relentlessness. White Heat weaves the stuff of Greek tragedy into the hardest noir of the 1940s.

The screenplay by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts was inspired by crime writer Virginia Kellogg's short story. She earned an Academy Award nod for Best Story, the film's lone nomination (it's unclear why Goff and Roberts were omitted). And what fabulous writing it is: Characters bristle and bark at each other in spectacular torrents of verbiage that was simply unheard-of in 1949 and remains amazing today. A taste of that dialogue:

Gangster (voice trembling): “You wouldn't kill me in cold blood, would ya?”
Jarrett (sneering as he pulls the trigger): “Naw; I'll let ya warm up a little.”

At a fast-paced 113 minutes, fans might wish White Heat would unspool for another hour or more.

Thoughts on the DVD

Warner Bros., the studio from Hollywood's Golden Age that specialized in violent gangster pictures, unleashes White Heat with a superb set of disc extras:

Film critic Leonard Maltin introduces "Warner Night at the Movies 1949," an enjoyable time capsule featuring a newsreel, a comedy short, a Bugs Bunny cartoon (“Homeless Hare”), theatrical trailers, and White Heat, our feature presentation. Like the Night at the Movies features on other Warner discs, these selections can be played individually or in succession, which approximates the theatrical experience more than half a century ago when a ticket cost 25 cents, audiences actually got their money's worth, and they didn’t have to sit through asinine commercials.

Film historian Drew Casper delivers an insightful, feature-length commentary on an alternate track, dishing on all manner of production information and trivia for the true fan.

There's also a 17-minute featurette, White Heat: Top of the World, exploring the historic importance of the film, with insights from Martin Scorsese and other filmmakers who speculate on what was wrong with Cody Jarrett. Migraines? Epilepsy? Full-blown psychosis? Whatever his affliction, this short feature is informative and entertaining.


White Heat is a genuine noir classic. The print and sound on this DVD are pristine, the quality extras are comprehensive, and Warner packages the disc in a smart-looking case at an attractive price.

As for Cody Jarrett, his fate is sealed in film immortality: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”


Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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