2019 Film Essays

Man on Fire: ‘White Heat’ and the Dynamic James Cagney

James Cagney knew his way around an anti-hero. He had refined the role in such Warner Brothers classics as Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Roaring Twenties (1939) and, perhaps most shockingly, The Public Enemy (1931), which featured the 32-year-old actor in just his fourth film, and featured his infamous plunging of a grapefruit to Mae Clarke’s face. Anti-heroes extended beyond the realm of gangsterdom, however, provoking the moral ambiguities of westerns and melodramas and even Warner’s own backstage musicals. But there had never been an anti-hero quite like Arthur “Cody” Jarrett. Cagney’s sadistic lead in White Heat, a searing 1949 crime drama from director Raoul Walsh, is something well past the norms of a conventional male protagonist — or antagonist, for that matter. He is repulsive and propulsive, alarming and pathetic, and more than anything, he is aggressively, boldly and wholly magnetic.

Cagney’s range was incredible, and it remains underrated; aside from his charming, Oscar-winning performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), he is mostly identified with the young hoods who emblazoned the early part of his career, though they by no means comprised its entirety (who can forget his turn as, of all things, a Bureau of Weights and Measures investigator in 1936’s Great Guy?). All the same, fearing a downward spiral into typecast routine, Cagney began avoiding the gangster genre. “Movies should be entertaining, not blood baths,” he said. “I’m sick of carrying a gun and beating up women.” He left Warner Brothers in the early 1940s and formed a production company with his brother and business manager, William. Unfortunately, the succeeding films made together were generally unsuccessful, and Cagney soon returned, near the end of the decade, to the studio that had proved so significant in the crafting of his star persona, for better or worse. He recognized the public’s enjoyment and fascination with crime, and he no doubt saw in Cody Jarrett a popular return to form (he also saw a hefty paycheck). But still he lamented, “Someday, though, I’d like to make just one picture kids could go see.” White Heat, at least at the time, wouldn’t have been one of them. 

Walsh, who had directed Cagney before in Strawberry Blonde (1941), a romantic comedy, discharges the action of White Heat with an opening train robbery. Set in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the violent heist produces $300,000 in federal currency for Cody and his gang, and leaves an ample body count in their wake. An illustrative motif since the birth of cinema, the locomotive is here a similarly symbolic vehicle for this prefatory raid, denoting, especially, the nature of Cagney’s characterization. Barreling down the tracks toward the camera in White Heat’s first shot, under its title credits, the train’s thrust soon shifts to Cagney’s correspondingly headlong velocity. Like the engine, Cody is not only powerful and dynamic, but if he is contested by some opposing force, the results prove proportionately destructive. White Heat is thusly notable for a compelling, unremitting momentum. It is, essentially, a pursuit from start to finish, with shootouts, hideouts and high-speed car chases vigorously shot by cinematographer Sidney Hickox, his mounted camera held in realistic, exhilarating full frames of movement, running parallel to the hurtling automobiles. Displaying atmospheric and thematic nods to noir as well as the gangster picture, with apposite music by Max Steiner and editing by Owen Marks, White Heat moves along an intensive and thrilling trajectory.

Holding Cody back, though, just barely, are his raging suspicions — often well-founded and primarily concerning “Big Ed” Somers, his scheming second in command played by Steve Cochran. Cody is paranoid for good reason — “What I don’t know, I don’t trust,” he declares — but the hostile unpredictability is amplified by his own volatile disposition. Cagney had filled out since the lean and mean days of the 1930s. It was part of a natural aging process, of course, but the outward transformation also imbues in Cody a fatigued, seasoned erosion (it also speaks to his experience, and Cody is nothing if not his reputation). His somewhat bloated body and the lines that engrave a tired topography of friction on his face evince what has been a less-than-healthy way of life, and Cody’s physical fallibility is indeed front and center. Deemed a “crack pot” by one of his henchmen (behind his back, obviously), Cody is plagued by debilitating migraines that leave him squealing in pain, writhing on the floor as if his entire body could burst or twist out of proportion: “It’s like having a red-hot buzz saw inside my head,” he says of these seizures. And yet, these episodes not only testify to the unstable state of his physical condition, they seem to charge his combustible temperament — even his primary weakness seems dangerous. 

These fits also make him vulnerable, something observed by his doting, devious mother, “Ma” Jarrett, played by Margaret Wycherly, an Oscar nominee for 1941’s Sergeant York. It’s not unusual for movie mothers to be the object of their son’s adoration and veneration, but this maternal rapport is decidedly peculiar; bolstered by the captivating performances of Cagney and Wycherly, it was and remains oddly touching and utterly beguiling. Following one of Cody’s spasms, Ma cautions her boy before he returns to his bewildered crew. “Don’t let them see you like that,” she warns. “Might give some of them ideas.” On one hand, it’s an overt recognition of the importance of appearance, of how a man like Cody must maintain a certain tough-guy posture, preserving the impression of unassailable command — he can never betray his insecurities. On the other, their interaction yields curious sympathy for this psychotic familial twosome (as revealed, she is every bit as cunning as he). For as brash and cruel as Cody is, he is absolutely devoted to the welfare of his supportive mother, and vice versa: he covers her snuggly with a blanket; she goes out of her way, and into danger, to get her boy his strawberries. 

The devotion is mocked by the other woman in Cody’s life, his abused and subsequently treacherous wife, Verma, played by Virginia Mayo, but there is no denying Ma’s importance in the gang. Not only does she receive a 50/50 split in their take, but she above anyone else is his primary advocate. “Times when I’d be losing my grip,” Cody states, “there she’d be, right behind me, pushing me back up again.” It’s hard not to appreciate this admitted sensitivity, which is certainly rare for a genre built on self-sufficiency and macho conduct. Their uneasily tender relationship crests in one of White Heat’s most astonishing moments of physiological revelation. When word of Ma’s death spreads along a line of inmates during a prison meal, the last in line appearing appreciably reluctant to covey the message to Cody himself, Cody’s anticipated outburst is a manic thunderbolt of emotion. Basing the response on a visit he made to an asylum as a boy, and the sounds his father would make when drunk, Cagney’s suppressed whimpers splinter into a startling, unbridled frenzy, a tantrum of anguished howls and wild gyrations that leave his fellow convicts in stunned silence (an apparently authentic reaction, as at least some of the cast was unaware of how Cagney would respond). This is Cagney at his most ferocious and perilous, and his most empathetic.

The unsettling dualism of Cody’s demonstrative potential is also seen in his interactions with Verma. Though they share the occasional scene of seemingly sincere love, as when he tells her she’d “look good a shower curtain,” she also flinches when he simply raises his hand, assuming a slap in an involuntary reaction to a perceived history of violence (affirmed earlier when he kicks over a stool and sends her tumbling to the bed). Though she plays White Heat’s unappreciated third fiddle, to Cagney and Wycherly, Mayo does at least have some rather audacious material to work with. Viewed, or rather, heard snoring loudly in her introductory scene, Mayo embraces the unglamorous, slightly vulgar role. She is unapologetically deceitful and delightfully coarse, spitting out a wad of gum before giving Cagney a kiss, for example, hardly the custom of an elegant Hollywood actress. 

Walsh’s treatment of such gritty, hard-hitting content likewise extended to White Heat’s violence, beginning with the opening robbery. It starts with staggering, cold-blooded killing and ends as one gang member gets scalded in the face with hydraulic steam, leaving him bandaged in torturous agony. The startling, detached treatment of run-of-the-mill violence allowed Cagney to exploit the sort of erratic behavior he so superbly advanced. When confronting Roy Parker in prison, a felon played by Paul Guilfoyle, hired by Big Ed to kill Cody, Cagney conveys overwhelming menace in a mere smirk, while, less subtly, his appearance when constrained to a strait jacket instantly suggests the volcanic concentration primed for eruption. But there is also a twisted, admittedly appealing delight in his murderous impulse. Later, when he gleefully kills Big Ed and casually takes Verma’s arm to escort her down a flight of stairs, like a newly (re)crowned king of the court, he pauses at the top and gives Ed’s corpse a kick, sending it plummeting down ahead — “Catch,” he says, daringly and defiantly to the speechless onlookers below. Cagney is intimidating in shots of isolated extraction (a skillfully lit glimpse of his determined face, peering through cracked bedroom door) and in surges of full-bodied violence (ripping a phone of the wall). And then there are the comically perverse moments of inspired relish, giving full exhibition to Cagney’s remarkable charisma: plopping down on Wycherly’s lap (one of several delicious moments improvised by the actor) and filling a car trunk full of bullet holes after its occupant, Parker, complains about the enclosure being too stuffy — all as Cody gnaws away on a chicken wing.

What gets Cody in the most trouble is when he wounds Treasury investigator Philip Evans (John Archer), who, in turn, assigns undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) to the same Illinois penitentiary where Cody temporarily dwells. In this clandestine ruse, and in several scenes before and following, the efficiency of White Heat’s police force proves a thoughtful, coordinated contrast to the inconsistent, faithless makeup of Cody and his gang. When Cody wonders how the authorities got wise to his plot, assuming, “Somebody must have tipped them,” Verma counters, rightly, “It’s always ‘somebody tipped them,’ never ‘the cops are smart.’” In fact, although it gets lost in the furor of Cagney’s instability, and the ensuing aftermath, Walsh and White Heat screenwriters Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts devote exceptional attention to the police and their use of cutting-edge crime fighting technology. But that’s not what audiences came to see (though it is one of the film’s more fascinating bits of historical periphery). Suggested by a story from Virginia Kellogg, who received the film’s only Academy Award nomination, White Heat was inspired by the notorious Ma Barker and her four criminal sons, but outside any real-world impetus, the film was, from conception, a conspicuous catch-all for traditional Cagney themes and the marketable expectations of his prior work. And that it is, terrifically so, but with its surprising Freudian connotations and its self-conscious sense of behavioral awareness — “You know how jittery I am,” asserts Cody, “Any minute I’m liable to explode.” — White Heat is also something unique, something beyond anything produced by any studio. 

And it all comes down to James Cagney, whose fearless embodiment of megalomaniacally Cody Jarrett is a performance for the ages. Fitful and panicked, snarling and susceptible, running, jumping and squatting in one fluid movement: his dynamism is unparalleled. A gifted dancer (see his sprightly staircase descent in Yankee Doodle Dandy) and the son of an amateur boxer, Cagney never relinquished a physical grace, even in the most ungraceful of situations. He moves with a distinct rhythm, a bounce that is both pugnacious and refined. His relatively small frame (standing just 5’5”) and his advancing age (50 at the time of production) dither in the face of his voracious intensity. He is a fast-talking turbine, barking orders and issuing threats and snappy one-liners with equal aplomb, speaking in third-person like the emphatic narrator of his own lawless chronicle. If White Heat has any faults, it would be in the way Cagney’s absence (as when he is away in prison), drains the picture of its erstwhile energy. Crime may not ultimately pay for cracked Cody Jarrett, but when he reaches the pinnacle of an incendiary refinery, making it, as he famously proclaims to his dearly departed mother, to the “top of the world!,” he at least finds release and perhaps even peace. It’s a fiery denouement befitting this explosive personality. Just don’t forget, he’s the bad guy.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.

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