Acting's in the eyes and regardless of the role Jimmy Cagney's
eyes always screamed "caged." Whether playing George M. Cohan
or some middle-aged Coca-Cola executive
, watching Cagney is like watching the lit fuse of a firecracker and whether it was with an explosion of song, dance or violence, Cagney never disappointed -- he went off. In "White Heat
," director Raoul Walsh's
magnificent closing chapter in a magnificent two-decade series of Warner Brothers' gangster pictures, Cagney again explodes ...only this time, literally.
Jimmy Cagney in the early 1930s
Produced in 1949, within just a few minutes "White Heat" announces itself as something unlike anything that came before starting with the introduction of Verna Jarrett (29 year old Virginia Mayo), a striking, almost regal beauty shown fast asleep in a close up. Walsh immediately knocks the bark off his perfectly groomed leading lady by having her snore like a sailor after a three day bender. The message is clear: don't believe everything you see. In just a few more minutes things will move even further beyond normal and straight into disturbing.
You know something, Verna, if I turn my back long enough for Big Ed to put a hole in it, there'd be a hole in it.
Verna's 50 year old husband is Cody Jarrett (Cagney), a thumb-shaped psychotic holed up in the middle of nowhere with a half-dozen cabin-fevered gunsels eager to split the loot they scored in the opening sequence, an audacious train robbery that ended with Jarrett shooting two conductors in cold, grinning, steel-eyed blood. Jarrett's five-foot-nothing stature means nothing. Swaggering brutality is his currency and though outnumbered he looms over his mutinous gang with the promise that any challenge can only end in death, very likely theirs. They back off.
I told you to keep away from that radio. If that battery is dead it'll have company.
But the stress of confrontation brings headaches, horrible ones, migraines that throw Cody in a disoriented spin of suffering. He mewls like a cat, bounces off the walls and finds comfort in only one place: the lap of his aged mother (a ghoulish, shark-eyed Margaret Mycherly
). Pouty and feeling sorry for himself, he sits there like a toddler with a boo boo as she rubs his ailing head.
Creepy can't begin to describe the haunting scene of a middle-aged man cradled in the arms of his cold, manipulative mother. The staging of the moment is what makes it so effective and memorable. Nothing prepares you. No score or camera movement announce anything out of the ordinary and the actors play the scene as matter-of-factly as a walk down the street. The net effect is to make you feel like the unlucky witness to something very, very wrong.
Top of the world, Son.
Don't know what I'd do without you, Ma.
"White Heat" has a whole lot of plot to get through so not much time passes before the cops find Cody and he lands in the Big House. Only thing is that he outsmarted them coppers with a pre-planned alibi to avoid a murder-one rap and the electric chair. Jarrett confesses to a nothing crime he set up in another state and in return receives an air-tight alibi and a two-year stretch. The Los Angeles Treasury Department is on to Cody, however, and arrange for undercover agent Vic Pardo (Edmond O'Brien
) to befriend Cody as his cellmate.
And that's all the plot you're getting from me.
The Mighty Cagney and The Mighty Edmond O'Brien
Cagney is so good, so overwhelmingly, blazingly good that you have to watch the picture a few times before the greatness around him can come into focus and receive the appreciation deserved, starting with an outstanding story loaded with exciting, unpredictable turning points and paced with precision. Much of the production is filmed on location with a number of impressive shots of downtown Los Angeles.
It's always "somebody tipped them." Never "the cops are smart."
Better still, ‘White Heat" takes you deep into the gears of the then-modern world of investigative procedure and does what great movies do, shows you around on a tour of how things work. The Treasury Dept. uses all kinds of interesting stuff to locate and track Jarrett: Fingerprinting, facial casts, this coolio gizmo called a spectrograph, and this even cooler thing called an oscillator that's about the size of a toaster and works as an automobile tracking device.
Yes, on top of all that flinty dialogue, elaborate heisting, a visit to the Big House, and Cagney at his menacing, charismatic best, you're watching "CSI: Fedora."
You wouldn't kill me in cold blood, would ya?
No, I'll let ya warm up a little.
Max Steiner is his usual genius setting the proceedings to a score that enhances without ever getting in the way and as Verna, Virginia Mayo gives the performance of her career as the worst of the bunch. Other than her own pleasure, Verna is loyal to nothing and no one - just a beautiful, dangerous, not very bright, bundle of relentless need.
Edmond O'Brien - an Oscar-winning character actor who deserves more recognition - plays it cool and professional, an excellent plan for any actor hoping to not get swamped by a Jimmy Cagney who excelled at scene stealing, and was never above using a prop to do so. One of my favorite actorly moments is a scene where as soon as his lines begin Cagney grabs O'Brien's prop (a stick). Believe me, Cagney understood the power of an actor fiddling with something, which brings me to that chicken leg...
There are three unforgettable scenes, my personal favorite being Jarrett's cavalier revenge-killing of a man locked in a car trunk.
How ya doin', Parker?
It's stuffy in here, I need some air.
Oh, stuffy, huh? I'll give ya a little air.
As Jarrett gives Parker a little air with four bullet holes through the trunk, he munches a chicken leg - the kind of touch that adds a vibrant dynamic to the scene whether you consciously notice it or not.
Remarkably, Cagney wasn't even nominated for his now-iconic work here. Not to begrudge those who were but did any one of these nominees
carry off a moment even close to this?
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"White Heat" remains as powerful and entertaining sixty-years on because the goals of its creators are grounded in the modest, timeless idea of gathering together the most gifted of artists to tell the best story possible. That might sound like an old-fashioned concept among the sophisticates, but long after the intellectual fad of postmodernism joins the hula hoop and the lava lamp, Cody Jarrett will live on.