Friday, May 24, 2019

Noir Watch: White Heat (1949)

Watched:  05/22/2019
Format:  Noir Alley on TCM
Viewing:  Second (third?)
Decade:  1940's

Cagney made it big in films of the 1930's with breakout roles like The Public Enemy and Angels with Dirty Faces.  During the war, he had a massive hit with Yankee Doodle Dandy, but by 1949, he was back in tough-guy mode when he was brought on to play Cody Jarrett in White Heat, maybe one of the most famous outlaw films in American cinema.

One interesting thing about crime films starting in the 1940's is that they really do lock in what everyone else after is going to riff on forever after, whether it's Richard Widmark's psychotic gleefulness, or here, with Cagney's explosive episodes.  I have no idea what was in the script and what was Cagney, (or what came from director Raoul Walsh) but the headache sequences are such a weird, buyable conceit, part of a man that feels barely tethered together, and wildly unpredictable (and pointedly childish).

The movie has a terrific cast in Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Steve Cochran, Edmond O'Brien, and Margaret Wycherly in the role of the crooked Ma Jarrett, who can't separate her love and belief in her boy from defending and supporting his life as a criminal.  And, reciprocating, Cagney's Cody Jarrett loves no one other than his mother, including mistreating and ignoring his bombshell/ grifter of a wife, played by Mayo.

Muller pointed out that by this period in filmmaking and noir, pressure was on not to blame society (it seemed unpatriotic, etc...) for people turning to crime, they were simply born bad, and Jarrett exemplifies this motion - he's he child of criminals, one of whom died in a mental hospital.  Sure, there were always guys who were just bad (see: the entire noir career of Raymond Burr), but as the protagonist or focus of a movie, we were usually given some out.  Not so here - even at the height of his despair, Jarrett's scene in the cafeteria is more spectacle of madness than truly something to drive sympathy, a final childish wail as he let's go of his only moorings and we know he'll be worse than ever.

This is simply one of those films that doesn't need someone like me telling you it lives up to the hype.  With Raoul Walsh directing, a terrific script and cast - it captures something fascinating about the implosion of the out-of-control criminal, Cagney's final declarations that he's now "Top o' the World" a battlecry that seems to have misunderstood, embraced and given back to us in crime film after crime film, and perhaps embraced a bit too much by those who feel they, too, haven't fit in, well aware their paths are self-destructive.

It had been a few years since I'd seen this one, and I'm sure I've seen it more than once before, but it's always worth returning to. 

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