Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.
I went into White Heat with high expectations. For starters, I love film noir, and this is a film from the heart of the genre and the heart of the period. Second, and even more critical, I like James Cagney. He had the potential to overact at times, but it often fit in with his persona. Cagney often played larger-than-life characters, and a little histrionics never hurt anyone too much. Knowing it was Cagney in the same mode as a film like The Public Enemy, the sort of film that made him a gangster in the minds of movie fans, I was ready for anything.
This is an odd film in a number of ways, though. It’s an atypical noir in that the characters are flawed in different ways than is expected. Oh, there’s plenty of violence and more callousness than I was expecting, but there’s more to it than that. Our characters here are odd ducks, and none is odder than Cagney’s Cody Jarrett.
Cody Jarrett is the leader of a gang of thugs, and the film starts with the gang perpetrating a heist on a train. They get away with $300,000, killing four train employees in the process. Also, at one critical moment, one of the criminals (Ford Rainey) is badly scalded by steam from the train engine. He and the gang go hide out at a cabin up in the mountains until the heat dies down. When a storm whips up, they prepare to leave, but can’t take the injured man. Instead, Cody tells one of his underlings to finish him off. The underling doesn’t.
It doesn’t matter, though, because the injured man dies anyway. His body is eventually found, and while he didn’t have a record, some others there did. Treasury agents, here personified as Evans (John Archer) and Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) have a hunch that it’s Cody Jarrett’s gang doing the job. They start to put the heat on, and Cody decides the best course of action is to cop a plea in a different state for a different crime. The cops decide to infiltrate by putting Fallon in prison with him, calling him Vic Pardo. A prison break and a heist based on the Trojan Horse later, and we’re primed for the—quite literally—explosive climax.
All of this gives short shrift to the complexity of what is going on here. It ignores, for instance, Cody’s wife Verna (Virginia Mayo), who makes a show of faithfulness to Cody but is actually hung up on one of his lieutenants, “Big Ed” Somers (Steve Cochran). It leaves out Cody’s odd relationship with his mother (Margaret Wycherly). Cody seems entirely dependent on her for everything, and she seems to endorse his criminal career without question.
Cody Jarrett is one of the strangest and most affected criminals in films of this era. In addition to his mother fixation, he also has frequent headaches that cause him to collapse. He frequently has fits of intense emotion, at one point ending up in a straitjacket for completely losing his cool during a prison meal.
He is also one of the most callous characters in film of the era. He kills without remorse, almost with pleasure. When Verna, standing on a chair to look in a mirror at herself in a long coat says something he doesn’t like, he kicks the chair out from under her. He is single-minded and manic in all situations, ready to turn on anyone except his beloved Ma.
Film noir, of course, is plenty dark most of the time, but White Heat is darker than most, despite its name. Cagney, of course, played plenty of gangsters in his career, cutting his acting teeth in films like Angels with Dirty Faces and The Public Enemy. Those films, though, were more than a decade (almost two decades in the case of The Public Enemy) previous to White Heat. As a cinematic thug, Cagney aged into this role. Where his early characters will filled with a sort of criminal brashness, Cody Jarrett is pure malice and insanity.
White Heat is a hard film for me to put my finger on. On the one hand, it’s such a strange film noir. It has many or all of the classic elements, but they are warped in odd ways. Verna and Ma, for instance, both have aspects of the classic femme fatale, but neither has the complete package. Cody is a great noir anti-hero, except that there’s no chance that we’ll root for him in anything. He’s clearly deranged and sociopathic. Even the cops feel grimy in this film.
Twist my arm? I liked it. It frequently falls deeply into overacting, often by Cagney himself, but it all seems to work despite this. The bad guys are all too dirty and crazy and the cops are all just a hint too zealous, but it works nonetheless. And really, that ending is worth the price of admission.
Why to watch White Heat: For Cagney, naturally.
Why not to watch: There’s a lot of overacting, even for a film noir.