White Heat (1949)

White Heat – 1949

Director – Raoul Walsh

Starring – James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, and Edmond O’Brien

The title of this film, White Heat, clearly comes from the boxed up frustration and rage capable of the late great James Cagney.  The character, Cody Jarrett, is a hot-headed gangster with some not so subtle mother issues.  Rounding out the cast of a 1000 dysfunctions is his wife, Verna, ready to cross him the moment he goes away, his right hand man, Big Ed, itching to step in and take his place, and his mother, Ma Jarrett, more than willing to accept and encourage his dependence on her.  Together, these characters set up the conditions for a dramatic explosion of volatility and emotion, and explode they do.

Feeling the heat for the robbery we see him commit at the start of the film, Jarrett confesses to a lesser crime alibi that he had set up beforehand.  Sent up to prison in Illinois, the federales plant a man on the inside in an effort to gain Jarrett’s trust.  While on the inside, Cody’s gang is strong-armed, and his wife is swept off her feet by, who else, Big Ed.  Without giving away too much of the story, things continue to fall apart from there.

Cagney’s performance matches perfectly with my pre-conceived image of him from the few film clips that I’ve seen, and through his performance in Angels With Dirty Faces.  Since White Heat and Angels are among some of his most popular and well-known films, unfortunately, that means that his characters don’t seem like carefully crafted creations so much as they seem like him just playing himself.  Whether or not Cagney possessed any similarity to the Cody Jarrett character, I’m not sure, but I had the distinct impression that he wasn’t really acting so much as talking.  Now I may be completely wrong on that point, lord knows I was completely wrong about my preconceptions of Humphrey Bogart, but that is yet to be discovered.

Each other character is overshadowed by Cagney’s performance, and while each probably fulfilled their roles quite adequately, none were stand outs.  Despite this fact, the story was still a very quick paced, enjoyable yarn about a self-destructing gangster.  The inevitability of Jarrett’s disintegration was never in question, the drama lay in watching how he would flame out (if you have seen this film already…pun intended.  If you haven’t seen the film…you’ll get it when you do).  Just remember when life is snapping at your heels, and it seems like everyone is after you, it never hurts to yell out “Top of the world, Ma!”

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Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

1938AngelsWithDirtyFaces

Angels With Dirty Faces – 1938

Director – Michael Curtiz

Starring – James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, and Ann Sheridan

You can officially mark this down as the definitive moment where I witnessed my first James Cagney movie.  Unfortunately you can also mark this down as the start of my apathy towards the much lauded actor.  His performance as a tough as nails, streetwise hoodlum, with a soft spot for anyone willing to lavish him with attention didn’t do much to impress me.  His, and Pat O’Brien’s performances as the old friends who went down very different paths, were nothing more than caricatures of cartoon renditions of the saintly priest and the hair-triggered gangster.

This movie’s patchwork of stereotypes and cliches stretches the  audience’s ability to suspend disbelief to the breaking point.  We are to believe that the cause for their very different outcomes is because, as kids one of them (Cagney) was too slow running from the cops, got caught, and was sent to juvenile hall.  This started him on the road to a life of crime, debauchery, and inevitable inprisonment.  O’Brien, on the other hand, feels guilty for his friend getting caught and apparently turns into a one note, billboard for piety.  He and Cagney meet again, years down the line and resume their unquestioned friendship where it left off, cracking jokes and talking about old times.

The obvious moral tone of the film is, at times, too much to take seriously.  Ham-fisted attempts at showing the folly of the youth that admires the gangster, and the weakness of the girl who falls in love with him, is never dealt with in a realistic way.  The stakes are always set in stone for Cagney’s character,  he is either going to prison, or to the grave, maybe both.  In terms of the stakes of the dramatic action, there is no question that this will happen, there is no other outcome.  His gangster character, and also for that matter the priest character, aren’t even written as people who make conscious choices, both are just a facts of life,  forces of nature.  There is no decision making done by either of these two.  The director, Curtiz, seems to be simply setting us up.  The movie is billed as a rolicking action movie, with gangsters and guns on the poster, but ends up being an overly preachy tale of the ills of gangsters, women and crime.  It almost chastises you for wanting to see Rocky (Cagney) win, through it’s heavy handed message.

Don’t get me wrong, it is watchable, and even enjoyable, but only if you manage to dis-regard the flagrant moral-ism on display.  On the plus side, the ever-watchable Humphrey Bogart plays Cagney’s shady, double-crossing, lawyer accomplice.  His nervous mannerisms, and general dislike for Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan, seem to be the most enjoyable, but also the most authentic part of the whole film.

Check it out if you like early gangster flicks, but don’t bank on it being the best one you’ll ever see.  Movies that do it better… Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, The Big Sleep, the original Kiss of Death featuring the creepy Richard Widmark, and the recent Brick.  I recommend checking those out, if not instead, at least along side.