White Heat (1949)

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*. The return of James Cagney. Not the return of Tom Powers, anti-hero of The Public Enemy. Cody Jarrett is something else.
*. I think audiences probably found Cagney’s first appearance here striking. He’s noticeably older (nearly 50), his face both fleshier and more corrugated though his body’s still in fighting trim. And he’s scowling. Some of the charm of his earlier gangster roles has worn off, along with any moral compass.
*. One of the most striking things about this film is Cody’s violence. I’m not sure if he’s a sadist, but he’s a reflexive bully. Smushing a grapefruit in his girl’s face had wit. Kicking Virginia Mayo off a chair is just the instinctual lashing out of an angry man (and also a wonderful bit of improvisation).
*. Violence is just no big thing to Cody. He seems totally indifferent to the fate of poor Zuckie, and can shoot Parker up without dropping his chicken leg. Life and death are no big deal for him. He’s genuinely pleased with himself at the end for having made it to the top of the world, despite the fact that this means his imminent immolation.

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*. You don’t get far reading about this film before you come to Cody’s mother fixation. Quite often, as in Drew Casper’s DVD commentary, it is given a Freudian spin. I think this is mistaken. There is nothing at all sexual, or Oedipal, in Cody’s mother love.
*. What is the nature of that love, or, as Evans puts it, that “fierce psychopathic devotion”? Margaret Wycherly (“Ma”) is the classic codependent mother as enabler, caring for a son who has learned, in turn, just how to manipulate her. In the Oedipal myth the son wants to supplant his father as his mother’s conjugal partner. In the codependent relationship, as here, the son supplants an invalid father by becoming, initially through a stratagem, a patient in need of care himself. Like most such figures (think of the adult males you know, living in their mother’s basement), he is totally asexual. He can threaten his wife with violence, or goof around with her like a child, but never fuck her. He isn’t jealous of her bestowing sexual favours on Big Ed, but on his stealing her attention. She’s supposed to be worshipping him as his mother does. Anything less is a capital offence.

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*. Pauline Kael thought Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface to be perhaps “the only action picture that turns into an allegory of impotence.” I think this film is a much earlier and much more obvious case. Tony Montana has barely disguised erotic feelings for Manny. Cody only wants male pals, and even those he’s not much interested in. Like most spoiled children he doesn’t want any competition for his mother’s affection.
*. Put another way, like the typical mama’s boy he is, Cody has no real friends and one gets the sense that while he may threaten and frighten his gang members, everyone he meets (aside from Ma) ultimately despises him. As well they should.

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*. This almost total isolation outside of the mother-son dyad is the price Cody pays for his special status. In the course of the movie we see him betrayed by everyone else. Fallon/Pardo is of course a copper plant. Big Ed will cuckold him with a more-than-willing Verna. Even Cotton fails to dispatch Zuckie when ordered to do so. Without Ma he is totally alone, facing the utter abandonment that Robert Warshow saw as the fate of all movie gangsters: “No convention of the gangster film is more strongly established than this: it is dangerous to be alone. And yet the very conditions of success make it impossible not to be alone, for success is always the establishment of an individual pre-eminence that must be imposed on others, in who it automatically arouses hatred; the successful man is an outlaw.” Or at least he is in America.
*. While the scene where Cody goes crazy in the mess hall when he hears of his mother’s death is justifiably famous, it’s also a bit odd. Ma is such a key role, and so well performed by Wycherly, it’s strange that she’s dropped from the film so soon and so abruptly, dispatched in silence offstage.
*. Homosocial bonds have always been a big part of the gangster genre. Think of Scarface (either version will do), or Tom and Matt in The Public Enemy, or Cagney and Raft in Each Dawn I Die. Here it’s more complicated because Fallon/Pardo doesn’t displace Verna so much as he becomes a maternal surrogate. He becomes the guy to massage away Cody’s headaches, and he comes in for Ma’s fifty-percent cut of the take.
*. I like noticing the prices on things in old movies. Two pints of fresh strawberries for 25 cents. Sold!
*. As with most of Cagney’s gangster films, or really most of Cagney’s films, it drags whenever he’s not on screen. But it’s actually a pretty effective police procedural with a real interest in the science and method used by the T (as in Treasury) Men pursuing Cody.
*. Casper refers to this as “a nod to the mushrooming technophilia in America at this particular time,” but I’m not sure America has ever not been technophilic. In any event, we see the police here using spectrographic dust analysis on Zuckie’s clothes, then trailing Ma using three cars communicating by way of car telephones, and of course in the climactic pursuit sequence triangulating the signals from the radio transmitter by using the oscilloscope. This was all pretty cutting edge.

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*. It’s also miles ahead of Cody. He’s not a complete technophobe (he uses plastic explosives to blow of the door of the train carriage, and later brings an acetylene torch to cut into the safe), but he is a blast from the past, robbing a steam train in the opening sequence like a member of the James gang and coming up with a scheme for the final heist that’s taken from the Trojan War (a story told him, naturally, by his Ma).

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*. Casper also points out how the gang in general is associated with the country and the police with the city. I’m not sure if this is significant but it seems interesting, almost as though these are latter-day Depression-era, back roads gangsters who now find themselves out of time.
*. Is that also the explanation for the wind that seems to be constantly blowing throughout the picture? Even in the prison yard you can see it tossing people’s hair about it. Is this meant to evoke the Dustbowl, or the winds of change?
*. In addition to the technophilia there’s a general interest in how things get done: the plotting of the A-B-C method of police tailing, how they set up Fallon as a plant, the argument over the “checking” of Cody’s confession in Illinois (I don’t know what this refers to but presumably it just means they’ve accepted his guilty plea), and the logistics of the money laundering service offered by the Trader. But again Cody doesn’t share in much of this. He’s even surprised that his gang has gone out and bought a fuel truck.
*. Virginia Mayo is beautiful but has just a hint of dizziness in her eyes. If that doesn’t bring her down to earth enough, she’s also made to seem low grade by being introduced as a snorer, and someone who has to spit the gum out of her mouth before kissing her guy. I like how she’s fixated throughout on money, which, as she notes, is only paper if you don’t spend it. Her final appearance is an attempt to cut a deal with the police. When they reject her she complains that Evans is only a “cheap copper.” In her vocabulary, being cheap is probably the worst thing you can say about someone, even worse than being a cop.
*. By this time it was a convention that a gangster had lots of snappy patter. Hence Cody’s line about how Verna would look good in a shower curtain, or, when Parker asks if he’d kill him in cold blood, he replies that he’ll let him warm up a little. But I couldn’t help feeling that this was a bit out of character. Cody isn’t a total brute, but he’s not a great wit either. Wit and verbal dexterity come through social interaction, and Cody (as noted above) has no friends and is at heart an introverted mama’s boy. These types are invariably awkward when it comes to conversation.

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*. Casper is of the opinion that director Raoul Walsh is underrated. I think he’s more understated. As Casper’s analysis of the cafeteria scene shows (that’s the one where Cagney is placed in long shots and even concealed a lot of the time), his personal style wasn’t of the sort that drew attention to itself. The only passage that stuck out for me was the nearly 360-degree pan around the house Big Ed and Verna are hiding out in, from the radio all the way back around to the front door. It’s an effective bit of work, progressively revealing the full situation and suggesting the way the two are trapped inside the house.
*. An explosive conclusion is one of the hallmarks of popular film. The shark exploding at the end of Jaws, the Death Star at the end of Star Wars: there’s something cathartic about blowing the bad guy up real good. It also helps if they’re on top of a building. The interesting thing here is that we never actually see Cody’s fall. He is typically seen looking upward when addressing his lost Ma, as though she is waiting for him in heaven, which is also the direction he’s blown by the final explosion. So is this the destruction of the villain, his consumption in sulphurous, demonic flames, or rather the triumph and apotheosis of a hero?
*. There’s something a little unnerving in this regard about the scene where Cody tells Pardo that he’s been walking in the woods talking to his mother. Is there a conscious echo here of Jesus in the garden? The next day, Cody will be betrayed by Pardo and executed by the authorities, his arms outstretched in a classic pose. To be then reunited with his Ma? Where?

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