I’m writing this, as usual, way down the line from where I shoulda written it, some few dozen titles back, but it’s a cool vantage from which I can see that the movie White Heat did not (to my chagrin) turn out to be — a sort of crypto-bootlegger gangster picture like Public Enemy or The Roaring Twenties — is in fact extinct as we switch into the 1950s, and censorship loosens, and villains are permitted a little more flesh, a little more relatability, and also (to James Cagney’s evident delight as the star) more cruelty. It’s hard to fathom a worse human being than the psychopath Cagney plays in Public Enemy, or that Paul Muni played just a year later in Scarface, but there’s something about Cagney’s portrayal here of Cody Jarrett that feels…colder than those earlier characters. Wilder.
Maybe that’s partly because he’s an unaffiliated criminal. He plots crimes with his mom and runs with a gang of cronies but he’s not part of some larger syndicate or anything like that. He’s just a walking appetite, a monster. Hops from heist to heist, killing with impunity, and occasionally he’s hobbled by a migraine. Splayed out in agony til it passes.
But I didn’t like it at first cuz I was hoping for something a bit more brooding and ambient. A kind of hysterical, straightfaced portrait of that criminal-as-social-menace kinda PSA film we used to get.
What I wanted was the version of White Heat that would have been made in 1935.
But this is Killer Cagney for a postwar audience who, like the teenage daughter in The Reckless Moment, knows what’s what. They’re disillusioned. They know that bad shit happens for no reason, that the perpetrators aren’t always stirred by their crimes, and that if the bad guy does get toppled at the end it won’t come before he’s engineered a crazy amount of death and chaos — and, as with the explosion that finally does Jarrett in, there’ll be a fuck ton of collateral damage in bringing him down.
So Cagney’s the engine here, the compelling menace, but the screen gives him plenty of time off while we look at what the cops are doing to stop him, and how his girlfriend’s getting on with her life after he’s tucked away for a quick spell in prison.
Had this been made in the ’30s, Cagney would have been in almost every frame. But the 1949 version (which feels basically like a film of the ’50s) doesn’t feel the need to belabor the reality of this character’s cruelty, doesn’t feel like it has to sell the idea that such a monster could exist.
And why’s that?
Because the war’d just ended, and the American moviegoing audience was perfectly appreciative of the reality of such men.
The picture’s directed by Raoul Walsh. Echoing my surprise to see that Robert Flaherty, director of 1948’s Louisiana Story, was also the director of 1922’s Nanook of the North, I’m sitting here in a kind of stupor to note that Walsh, apart from White Heat, also directed 1924’s Thief of Bagdad. These guys are relics from another world. it’s neat to see them embarking on such ambitious projects later in life — and generating films that, looking back, reveal something about the slow shift of one era’s sensibilities into another’s.
I’m still not a fan of White Heat (though I’ll definitely watch it again to confirm), and there’s some extra disappointment on account of I’ve been looking forward to it for a year or so since I was seeing the gangster pictures of the ’30s and saw that Cagney would return to the genre so many years later. But, as I said, it’s a good movie (if fifteen minutes too long) that reflects some interesting stuff int he culture.
Thinking this’ll make the educational half of the next TMAP.