Friday, July 29, 2011

White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949)

When I posted my review for The Public Enemy recently, I was lambasted by a Cagney fan for spoiling the movie, something I found amusing because A) it is 80 years old and B) as any fan of a Cagney gangster picture should know, the crux of the movie is always in his grisly demise, because nobody died like Jimmy Cagney. Even before the Hays Code took effect, Cagney turned his deaths into a form of reckoning, not moral so much as existential. Even at his most ignoble, Cagney makes such demises so compelling that he infuses the worst brute with tragedy.

Well, they don't get much more brutish than Cody Jarrett. The film opens with Cody carrying out a train heist with great timing but ruthless sloppiness. The other crooks dispatch two men on-board the train, but Cody's viciousness comes out in calmer moments, prompted solely by one of his subordinates using his name in front of the engineer and fireman. Compounding this horror is the release of steam when the fireman falls on a release, inadvertently maiming one of the robbers. In less than five minutes Raoul Walsh crafts a world of such violence and death that one could guess its outcome even without the legendary "Top of the world, Ma!" conflagration that ends the film.

Even by Cagney's standards, this is a furious performance: Cody is a man wracked by his madness, so explosive and all-consuming that he is occasionally torn apart by his rage in splitting migraines. Cagney's clipped, punchy delivery has never sounded more sinister, and Cagney plumbs new depths for the lows that follow these manic highs. Underneath Cody's mania is an emotionally stunted man-child, a boy who used to fake headaches to get his mother's attention then came to rely on her when those headaches became real. Indeed, "Ma" not only knows of her son's lifestyle but accompanies and supports him as he hides out in a mountain safehouse.

Walsh's film is so grisly and cynical it stands out even among other noirs. This is a film where the protagonist leaves a scalded man to die alone, and even sends in a conscience-ridden hood to kill the poor sap. This is a film where no one is safe, and everyone is always scheming. Unfortunately for Cody, everyone plots against him, from his two-timing wife (Virginia Mayo) to the undercover agent (Edmond O'Brien) posing as a cellmate when Cody sneakily surrenders himself for a lesser crime that occurred at the same time as the train robbery.

That's the sad truth of Cody, of so many Cagney gangsters: they spend so much time sure of their own smarts that they don't realize how small-time and clumsy they are. That train robbery seems so skillfully planned, but it falls apart so quickly even though it succeeds. But despite the four murders and the grandiose madness we see in Cody, it is not a cop nor an FBI agent but a mere Treasury investigator named Evans (John Archer). Cody thinks he's so clever for taking the rap for a lesser crime and doing a short sentence, but Evans is already one step ahead, and Verna and double-crossing right-hand man Ed are already plotting taking over the gang.

Cagney manages to play this omniscient awareness through a clueless Cody without breaking from the character to telegraph his fate. He plays Cody's reliance on his mother less as easy Oedipal love than outright infancy. When Cody retreats into the safehouse bedroom to have his migraine, Cagney pounds the bed like a petulant child as he wrestles with his pain. Walsh stages an unexpectedly wrenching moment in prison as he moves in a lateral track down a dining table as Cody asks a recent inmate his mother is, the camera tracking the passed-down whisper to the man and tracking back as the dire, one-word answer creeps back to Cody. When he receives the news, Cagney explodes in agony, his incoherent moans of sorrow echoing around the hall as guards try to subdue him but are punched out in succession. This is Cagney at his most epic even as he shows a man at his smallest, and the moment is as terrifying as his final standoff.

That standoff is justly famous, one last example of Cody's almost Stalinist grip over his gang, the members of whom have the option of shooting at surrounding cops until killed or being shot by Cody for attempting to surrender. The literally explosive end is your standard combustion, but as Cagney screams that now immortal line, his epic funeral pyre feels as nuclear as the glowing terror that brings Kiss Me Deadly to an abrupt close. White Heat is postwar noir not at its most nihilistic, but certainly its most directionless and agonized. The title gives it away: Cody's rage is not focused enough to be blue flame, but that aimless fury is blinding.

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