Tuesday, November 17, 2009

White Heat (1949)

Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) is a ruthless killer and criminal mastermind. He’s also a serious mama’s boy. After unknowingly leaving clues linking him to a deadly railroad heist, Jarrett becomes the target of the feds. When they close in on Jarrett, he secretly flies to Illinois and turns himself in on trumped- up lesser charges as an alibi to the former crime. However, the feds are on to him and they send secret agent Hank Fallon to prison to be Jarrett’s cell mate. Under the name of Vic Pardo, Fallon befriends Jarrett by helping him with his psychotic breaks (in the form of headaches) and saving his life from another inmate who tries to kill him under the orders of Big Ed (Steve Cochran), one of Jarrett’s traitorous gang members.
Receiving a warning from his mother, Ma Jarrett ( Margaret Wycherly) that Big Ed and his wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) are double-crossing him, Jarrett pleads with his mother to stay out of the situation but she is determined to get rid of Big Ed so he doesn’t harm Jarrett. Desperate to break out of prison Jarrett turns to Fallon who sees this as his opportunity to infiltrate the Jarrett gang. Unfortunately, when things are all set for the break out, Jarrett learns of his mother’s death and in a well played out scene, he goes berserk, landing himself in the psych ward. All of Fallon and the feds best laid plans are now at loose ends and Fallon finds himself in deeper danger when Jarrett manages to break him and three other inmates out of prison. When Jarrett regroups his gang to mastermind a "Trojan horse" armored-car robbery, Fallon must depend upon his wits and cunning to both foil the gang and send a warning to the feds.

This film was James Cagney's first gangster film since the 1939 Roaring Twenties which was also directed by Raoul Walsh and though Cagney was proud of his performance in the film, he tended to dismiss White Heat as a cheap melodrama. Perhaps it was but the critics loved it and so did I. Though it was sad to see Cagney getting on in years (having first seen him play a gangster in 1931's The Public Enemy), he was no less powerful or compelling as Cody Jarrett. Unafraid to display any emotion, Cagney aptly portrayed a man haunted by his own madness. His vast experience playing a gangster combined with his ability to create a better scene (when the cafeteria scene where Jarrett learns of his mother's death wasn't working- Cagney caught everyone on screen by surprise as well as Walsh who did not know what Cagney had planned) makes him stand out among his peers. As does the unmistakable fast-paced rhythmic flow of his voice and his ability to contort his face into a mask of pure evil.
Before I decided to devote myself to some serious classic film watching, I was not a fan of Cagney. I found him odious and unlikeable not realizing that though he wasn't content to play the bad man, when he did, he did it well. Having seen him play both sinner and saint, I have come to recognize a talent that is original and refreshing as well as genius and haunting. In short, I have become a fan of one James Cagney.

Side note:
Cody Jarrett's shout on top of the oil tank in the film's climax, "Made it Ma, top of the world!" has entered the popular lexicon having been parodied on film, referenced in music, and even paraphrased on The Simpsons.

Tonight on TCM:
Meet John Doe (1941) A reporter's fraudulent story turns a tramp into a national hero and makes him a pawn of big business. Cast: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, Walter Brennan Dir: Frank Capra

Thanks to Dr. Macro for the images!

1 comment:

  1. I'm right with you - I never truly appreciated Cagney until I saw this picture. Astounding.

    Jen ^_^