Saturday, August 6, 2016

White Heat

White Heat; crime film, USA, 1949; D: Raoul Walsh, S: James Cagney, Edmond O'Brien, Virginia Mayo, Margaret Wycherly

Gangster Cody Jarrett and his gang, among them Ed, rob a train and then hide in a cottage in the hills until things calm down. Cody is married to Verna, but his love and attention belongs all to his mother, who helps him in his crime. When the police are tightening the ring around them, Cody has the brilliant idea to confess a lesser crime of a robbery in Springfield, committed at the same time during the train heist, and thus establishing a fake alibi. He is sentenced to two years in prison, but the police infiltrate their agent, Fallon, in Cody's cell, who slowly gains the gangsters confidence. Upon hearing that his mother was killed by fellow Ed, who is now with Verna, Cody escapes from prison with Fallon and kills Ed. Cody plans a robbery of a oil refinery, but dies when Fallon and the police raid the place.

James Cagney's spectacular return to the role the audience desired him the most, the one of the tough gangster, "White Heat" is today considered one of his ultimate achievements by the critics, and it is indeed an excellent film of "old school", though Wellman's "The Public Enemy" is still superior and may deserve the "ultimate" title just a tiny bit more than this. "White Heat" seems like a culmination and apex of Cagney's previous gangster roles, naturally resulting in the character of Cody Jarrett who has no positive emotions whatsoever, except for his mother - but even that is distorted, since she taught him a misguided concept that the only way to feel "important" is to be violent, and the only way to be "successful" is to be successful in crime. Congruently, the whole story is basically Cody's suicide path, leading to its inevitable dead end. The film has several clever moments (the "Departed" subplot is especially noteworthy, when Cody tests his new cellmate, Fallon - who is actually a police agent - by taking out the photo of Fallon's alleged wife, and putting it on his table, while Fallon does not react or recognize her; the anthological sequence of Cody in the prison kitchen, asking about his mother by having his neighbors "pass on" the question to the others sitting on the bench, until he gets the reply that she is dead, causing his mental breakdown) and flows very fluently, though a couple of minimal flaws are still there, such as a couple of erratic side characters or useless plot points. When one watches a movie, you may never know what part of it will stay in you memories. That will only become apparent with the flow of time. When the people first saw "White Heat", they had no idea which part of it will "stand out", or any, at all. But as decades went on, one moment kept turning up again and again, and went deep into the subsconscious of the popular culture: it is the expressionistic finale, that contains that spark of timeless energy in the dialogue "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!".


No comments: