White Heat (1949) dir. Raoul Walsh writ. Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (based on the story by Virginia Kellogg) cine. Sid Hickox music Max Steiner star. James Cagney (Cody Jarrett), Virginia Mayo (Verna), Steve Cochrane (Big Ed), Edmond O'Brien (Hank Fallon a.k.a Vic Pardo), Fred Clark (Evans), Margaret Wycherly (Ma Jarrett)
This is the seminal American gangster movie of the forties. With an aesthetic and sociology far beyond the typical action story, White Heat even surpasses High Sierra within Walsh's artistic portfolio. The use of rapid jump cuts to establish a retinal rhythm to match the psychopathic drive of Cody Jarrett's mind as he leads his gang of desperados on an assault and robbery of a train in the Sierras east of L.A. is a definitive exercise in how to move the action without compromise to -- or sacrifice of -- story/character exposition.
Jarrett (Cagney) and his gang highjack the train as it passes through the tunnel. As they blow open the armoured door of the money car, Jarrett executes the two engineers in the cab, one falling onto the steam switch as he collapses, accidentally blasting one of the gangsters in the face with a scalding jet of white steam from the hydraulic wheel drive. Blinded and in agony, the gangster staggers onto the tracks where he falls, his screams a Doppler chorus for the epileptic seizures that later characterize Jarrett's mental state.
This metaphor -- from which the film takes its title -- is repeated with hypnotic regularity through a multiplication of various images and scenes until the finale of grandiose white exploding fireballs that conclude the film in a universal statement of Man Gone Mad in the Nuclear Age.
Essentially the film is structured around four of Jarrett's seizures or brainstorms, typical of the four-crises-paradigm found in many action features.
lst Brainstorm: the mountain cabin where CJ and the gang hideout following the Tunnel heist. Discord between CJ and his "wife" Verna (Mayo) and his lieutenant Big Ed (Cochrane) is quickly established. Verna is a gleaming blond, a beautiful sow, slow-witted and shapely, a creature of opportunity and easy desire. Big Ed is Italianate, a "black" Iago with slicked hair and shadowed eyes, greedy for Verna and control of the gang. A stock situation made real because CJ has no illusions; he warns Ed, humiliates Verna, then has a seizure, discharging his .38 in a wild ejaculation as he hits the floor, moaning and writhing, a victim of the phantom demons that control his actions, secure his fate. Nearby lies Scoopie -- the injured gangster -- his burned face and hands bandaged like a mummy, a blind witness to the bizarre performance of his leader. Later left to die (although CJ ordered him executed), this dehumanized victim acts as both a warning and a symbol of things to come. Jarrett crawls into the bedroom where his mother (Wycherly) massages his head as she urges him to pull himself together, recall his mission -- "Top of the world, son, top of the world!"
The scene ends as a storm comes up (a recurring metaphor for Jarrett's madness) and the gang exits the hideout in two sedans, each taking separate routes for expediency, but accurately reflecting the division in the unit.
2nd Brainstorm: the prison workshop. CJ has engineered his incarceration on a Hotel robbery rap in order to beat the more serious Federal crime of the train robbery. Big Ed has taken over the gang and the voluptuous Verna and plots the murder of Ma Jarrett, who's been operating as if she's the leader in her son's absence. Big Ed first tries to have CJ killed in prison when a stoolie called Parker "accidentally" drops a heavy electric motor from an overhead crane. Fallon (O'Brien) knocks Jarrett aside, saves him, and becomes Ma's surrogate when CJ has another seizure. Fallon is an undercover Federal agent using the name Vic Pardo, a plant by the authorities in order to bust Jarrett when he tries to make his eventual escape.
The Illinois prison sequences have outstanding peripheral characters and semi-tone photography. This cathedral of crime is shown in vertical slits of light, the bars a Time Trap for the hardened cons of post-war America and the shake-down of Roosevelt's "Raw Deal". Communication is by the semaphores of lip-reading, bar-tapping, whispers and the visitor's room.
3rd Brainstorm: the prison dining hall. As the guards patrol the elevated catwalks with Thompson sub-machine guns, the cons file in and assume their seating at the long wooden tables in a rough parody of military discipline. This scene is justly celebrated for both Cagney's acting and Walsh's direction. A newly admitted con sits further down the table. CJ asks for news of "Ma". The camera follows the faces of the cons as they pass the request down the line and back again, the fatal reply whispered ear to ear, man to man, until he is told: "She's dead."
Jarrett goes nuts, clambers onto the table, staggers over the plates emitting agonized cries as chilling and primal as those of a wounded animal in the night. He falls from the table, taking two men with him, regains his feet, staggers towards the on-coming guards, smashes them aside with the inhuman strength of the truly insane. It takes four of them to finally subdue him... and the next time we see him, he's in a straight-jacket.
4th Brainstorm: the "Trojan Horse" heist of the payroll at the Long Beach oil refinery. CJ regains control of his gang (and Verna) after he surprises and shoots Big Ed at the San Bernadino hideout. A gasoline tanker truck is modified so the Jarrett gang can be ferried into the refinery hidden in the tank. Fallon, now CJ's friend and lieutenant, has rigged Verna's radio as a transponder, so the Feds are able to track the truck's movements and surprise the gang during the robbery.
Fallon's cover as "Pardo" is blown but he manages to escape when the cops fire tear-gas into the payroll office. Various gang members are gunned down as they try to flee but Jarrett makes it to the top of one of the huge gas tanks where he makes his last stand. Betrayed by everyone except his dead mother, he goes completely insane, laughing and taunting his enemies even though Fallon has shot him several times with a sniper rifle. Wounded, crazed, forever incorrigible, he fires his pistol into the tank, the punctures erupting in fiery jets as he screams "Made it, Ma -- top of the world!"
And the world explodes around him in a spectacular self-immolation of fire clouds, a spreading umbrella befitting the Nuclear Age.
It's an amazing scene, with an amazing setting, one often copied since. The rows of huge silver balls are like some molecular model, a universe where men move like toys in a mechanical womb, shrunken and overtaken by the technology they have created. It's not subtle, but the fable is irrefutable:
Fallon: (to Evans as they watch) Cody Jarrett... finally made it to the top of the world and it blew up -- right in his face.
As a study of madness, the answer isn't in the character -- Jarrett's condition is inherited from his father -- but in the environment. The decoupage of rapid cutting is in perfect harmony with the jerky Chaplinesque movement of Cagney's character, the child-man who can't escape his mother or control the adult world that finally overwhelms him.
The infantile reflex of the criminal mind within the mythic halo of the tragic hero is something we seem fated to watch as the world becomes more insecure and we look to Hollywood for an answer.
© LR 73/99
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