04 November 2005
100 films: White Heat
starring: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien, and Margaret Wycherly
written by: Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, from the story by Virginia Kellogg
directed by: Raoul Walsh
NR, 114 min, 1949, USA
Mama's Boy Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) is a crime boss with deep psychological issues and the feds on his tail for a train robbery. To give himself an alibi, he confesses to a lesser crime a couple of states away and is perfectly willing to serve the shorter sentence. Naturally, the authorities find this suspect, so they insert undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien) as his cellmate. Fallon is able to get close enough to Jarrett to be included in the gang's next venture, and Jarrett goes about getting revenge for his mother's death.
James Cagney, one of the great screen legends, virtually invented the tough-guy role that made him famous and would heavily influence an entire generation of actors. In White Heat, he turns in perhaps his best performance, and for good reason, as the character gives him a lot to work with. If you wanted to show the effects of the Oedipal Complex, Cody Jarrett would be a good place to start. Nothing in the world is more important to him than his mother--not his wife, his gang, his reputation, or his upcoming crime spree. She is the center of his world, a willing cohort to his crimes (she's even a key part of the gang's braintrust), and proof that perhaps you're never to old to have your mother looking out for you. So when she's killed looking after his interests while he's in jail, he's understandably upset. He goes ballistic in the mess hall, screaming and knocking things over, even taking out several guards, before being subdued in a straightjacket. Cagney improvised the scene, so the surpise of his fellow inmates has a lot of truth to it, and it shows that profound sense of anguish when you can do nothing but scream and look for something to hit while you're emotions are litterally pulling your body in every direction simultaneously. To say it's a commanding performance is putting it lightly. This is James Cagney's world and the film simply exists within it. Nothing in the plot is as important as fulfilling his mother's wish to make it "to the top of the world."
The plot's not bad, though, even if it is a little simplistic at times. But what it lacks in simplicity, it makes up for in details. There's several small touches that give the proceedings a feeling of authenticity: a note left on a bathroom mirror, an inmate who reads lips, a three-car system for following a suspect, a bit of compassion that arouses suspicion, a gas truck serving as a Trojan horse. It may not be a labrynth of a film, but it feels real, and ultimately that's more important.