Tuesday, April 26, 2016

White Heat

Few actors seared the screen like James Cagney. What was it about him? That face?  That hard to quantify aura, presence, what have you commands your attention every time you see him, whether his mug fills the frame or his stature is viewed in long shot.  Some actors just have it, regardless of how they're lit.  Cagney played a variety of roles (including the lead in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY) but is best known for his portrayals of gangsters.  When he made 1949's WHITE HEAT, it had been nearly a decade since he last carried the gun, dodging the heat. 

As Arthur "Cody" Jarrett, Cagney had perhaps his greatest and most iconic role - a violent, deranged criminal with a fierce devotion to his mother, "Ma" (Margaret Wycherly).  In fact, she's part of his gang, and his only confidante.  The others, especially "Big Ed" (Steve Cochran) are not to be trusted.  Perhaps they're  weary of taking orders and are looking to overthrow the pint sized psycho.  Cody's wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) is mostly neglected, competing for her husband's affections with Ma at every turn.

Cornered while on the run after a train robbery (in which some were killed), Cody hatches a plan to turn himself in for a lesser crime committed elsewhere (by an associate), knowing he'll merely get a few years in the state pen.  Treasury guy Philip Evans (John Archer) is wise to Cody's scheme and plants undercover agent Frank (Edmond O'Brien) in the same prison to get close to Cody.   Meanwhile, Big Ed also has a guy there would will take out Cody, ensuring Big Ed's role as #1. But Ma is also wise, and warns her dear son while he serves his stretch.  Complicating things further are Cody's episodic headaches, often edging into what is diagnosed as psychosis, just like his father who died in an asylum.

Among the B-movie plot mechanics of WHITE HEAT is a fairly observant psychological drama.  The near Oedipal relationship between Cody and Ma is surprisingly blatant for a film of its time, and the actors put it over strongly and uncomfortably.  Everyone in the cast plays it to the hilt.   Raoul Walsh masterfully orchestrates and paces a would be potboiler into a really fascinating bit of sociology.  And it's just so entertaining and exciting, too, one of the greatest noirs filmed.  There must have been a symbiosis between Walsh and Cagney, a trust that allowed the star to improvise at times, especially during the famous mess hall freak out.

By the time Cagney repeats "Top of the world" during the explosive finale, you've spent a few hours being dazzled by a wonderfully written screenplay by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts.  A mid twentieth century Greek tragedy, if you will, complete with a Trojan horse-esque plot turn involving an empty fuel tanker.

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