Gangster Noir

In the 1930s, Warner Brothers made a name for itself with its gangster pictures, and the star who was identified most closely with them was James Cagney.  Cagney started strong with the first of the genre, The Public Enemy, which the fourth movie he made.  His tough guy reputation was cemented with Angels With Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties.  He broke the stereotype with Yankee Doodle Dandy, showcasing his talent as a dancer (his first entertainment job was as a female dancer in a chorus line!) and he was adept at comedy, as showcased in his final film before his retirement in the 1960s, One Two Three.

Humphrey Bogart’s High Sierra in 1941 is usually counted as the end of the classic WB gangster pictures.  After World War II, film noir became the crime genre with its dark twists and motivations.  But there was one last classic of the genre to be made, one that blended in elements of noir into the old style.  It would fall to Cagney to put an end to the type of picture that had made him a star.

1949’s White Heat was suggested by a story by Virginia Kellogg, with a screenplay by the team of Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts.  The movie was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar as well as for an Edgar award.  Later on Goff and Roberts wrote Captain Horatio Hornblower and Band of Angels, as well as another Cagney vehicle, the Lon Chaney biopic, Man of a Thousand Faces.  In the 1960s they moved over to television where they had their longest lasting success as the creators of Charlie’s Angels.

Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a ruthless gang leader.  The ruthlessness is demonstrated right from the movie’s opening sequence, the robbery of a Treasury bond shipment from a train.  The robbery is successful, but one of the gang uses Jarrett’s name in front of the engineer and fireman.  Jarrett calmly kills both men.  There are seeds in the film of later psychopaths, leading up to characters such as Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter.  One famous sequence takes place about two-thirds of the way through the movie.  Jarrett has escaped from an Illinois prison, where he confessed to a minor crime as an alibi for the train job.  While in prison, Jarrett’s second-in-command “Big Ed” Somers (Steve Cochran) arranges for a hit on him.  Another prisoner tries to crush him using a crane, but misses.  When Jarrett escapes, he takes his would-be killer with him, hiding the man in the trunk of a car.  When the escapees change cars, Jarrett walks up to the trunk, pleasantly asks the man how he’s doing in there, then empties a revolver into the trunk.  The smiling killer, played by a major actor, hadn’t been seen before on the screen.  There was Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death two years earlier, laughing while he pushes an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs, but that was Widmark’s first appearance on the screen.  (It was a career-making role for Widmark.)  To have Cagney behave that way was a shock for the audience.

Virginia Mayo and James Cagney

Hollywood had a bit of a love affair with Freud, even as psychology was moving on to Jung and then to drug therapies.  As Norman Bates would say eleven years later, “A boy’s best friend is his mother.”  In White Heat, we see Ma Jarrett, played by a steely-eyed Margaret Wycherly.  She serves as his surrogate when Jarrett isn’t around.  The federal agent leading the search for the robbers explains that Jarrett would fake excruciating headaches when he was a child to get his mother’s attention, but now he gets them for real.  When Ma Jarrett is killed, while Jarrett is in prison, it sends him over the edge (at least in a Hollywood way).  The psychology portrayed in the film is rudimentary, but at least it’s there.  Wycherly was an English actress who was 67 when White Heat was filmed.  She appeared in her first film in 1915, and had played a famous mother before, to Gary Cooper in Sergeant York.  Some other movies where she had supporting roles were Forever Amber, Random Harvest, and The Yearling.  She passed away in 1956.

Jarrett also has a wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo), who’s unhappy to be subservient to Ma Jarrett.  She ends up siding with Somers in his power grab, and shoots Ma Jarrett in the back herself.  Verna later demonstrates her femme fatale wiles when Jarrett catches up with her and Somers.  She switches back to Jarrett, telling him it was Somers who shot Ma in the back.  Jarrett returns the favor to Somers.  At the end of the movie Verna tries to betray Jarrett to the cops in order to avoid prison, but happily they reject the offer.

Virginia Mayo was from a well-established family in St. Louis.  Her great great great grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War and later founded the city of East St. Louis, IL.  She started her acting career as a member of the St. Louis Municipal Opera, then moved on to Broadway.  Samuel Goldwyn brought her to Hollywood and she was soon a rising star, appearing as Dana Andrews’ less-than-faithful wife in The Best Years of our Lives and opposite Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  She got rave reviews for her performance as Verna.  Her career waned in the late 1950’s and most of her later work was on television, including a twelve show arc on the soap “Santa Barbara.”  She passed away in 2005 at age 84.

Steve Cochran, the duplicitous Somers, had played with Mayo several times before, including The Best Years of our Lives where she cheats on Andrews with him.  Cochran was a second-tier Errol Flynn hellraiser, known for playing rough characters on the screen and for his hard-living off-screen.  He was in his prime in White Heat, but he was never able to break out as a star in his own right.  His death sixteen years later was as colorful as his life.  He hired an all-girl “crew” to sail with him to Mexico and Central America (including at least one underage girl).  They encountered bad weather, and during the gale the already sick Cochran died of a lung infection.  It was a week before the authorities found the ship and rescued the women.

Edmond O’Brien and Cagney

In White Heat, the main good guy doesn’t appear until a third of the way through the movie.  Edmond O’Brien plays Hank Fallon, an undercover federal agent who uses the cover name Vic Pardo.  Fallon is placed in the same prison cell as Jarrett in the hopes of getting evidence on the gangster as well as discovering the fence Jarrett works with, who has made the treasury notes from the train robbery disappear.  (The fence is played by the wonderful character actor Fred Clark, who’s known more for his comedy turns but is quite effective in the role.)  When the other convict tries to squash Jarrett, Fallon saves him, giving him an entrée into Jarrett’s circle of friends.  Fallon works with the leader of the Feds, Philip Evans (John Archer), to arrange an escape so they can follow Jarrett to the fence, but the death of Jarrett’s mother ruins the plan.  Instead Jarrett works out his own breakout and takes Fallon along with him.

O’Brien was a well-respected character actor in the 40s, 50s and 60s, and won a best supporting actor Oscar for his role in 1955’s The Barefoot Contessa.  Mystery fans loved him as the man trying to solve his own murder in the classic D.O.A. that came out the year after White Heat.  In the 1960’s he appeared in two excellent Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Wild Bunch, along with the political thriller Seven Days In May.  He remained busy, mostly on television, into the mid-70’s, though his last film was John Frankenheimer’s unsuccessful blend of crime and comedy, 99 and 44/100% Dead in 1975.  He died of Alzheimer’s Disease in 1985, at age 69.

White Heat ends as it opens, with a robbery scene set piece.  This time Jarrett’s gang attempts a payroll heist at a chemical plant, using a tanker truck as a Trojan horse to get past the gate.  Fallon leaves a message for Evans in a gas station restroom warning of the crime, though he doesn’t know which plant will be hit.  He constructs a transponder from a radio belonging to Verna and sets it to the same frequency that was to be used during the prison break to track the escapees.  To the modern eye, the technology is quaint.  The transponder is the size of a loaf of bread, utilizing vacuum tubes, and is only good for a couple of miles.  Contrast that with the postage-stamp radio in Skyfall.  But in 1949 it was cutting edge.  Evans gets the message about the robbery just in time and uses monitoring cars to track the truck to the targeted plant.  For the audience, it was a fascinating and thrilling use of technology.

The driver of the truck is an ex-con who had been arrested earlier by Fallon and who almost blows his cover in the prison.  He recognizes Fallon in the middle of the heist, but Fallon manages to escape and joins up with Evans and the police, who are just outside, surrounding the gang.  In the fight that ensues, all the gang members are killed except for Jarrett, who takes refuge on the top of a large gas storage tank.  Fallon uses a sniper rifle to mortally wound Jarrett, but Jarrett stays on his feet.  In one of the most memorable endings of a movie, Jarrett manically talks to his mother, telling her he finally made it – “Top of the world, Ma!” – before firing his gun into the tank, causing it to explode.

A great deal of credit for the movie’s success goes to legendary director Raoul Walsh, who keeps the story racing forward.  He started in film in 1913, working both behind and in front of the camera.  His acting career ended after 1928 because of a freak accident (a jackrabbit hitting the windshield of his car) that cost him an eye.  Walsh had directed Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Thief of Bagdad and Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson, and he introduced John Wayne to audiences in 1930’s The Big Trail.  He made movies in all genres, though he’s responsible for the classic gangster pictures The Roaring Twenties and High Sierra.  In the 1950s he adapted Norman Mailer’s unsentimental WWII novel, The Naked and the Dead.  He retired from directing in 1964, with 139 films to his credit.

The movie also boasts a score by one of the Hollywood greats, Max Steiner, who wrote the themes for Gone With The Wind, Cassablanca, and Now, Voyager.  He won 3 Oscars in his career, out of 24 nominations.

There is one major goof in the movie.  During the opening train-robbing sequence, Jarrett jumps from the top of a tunnel when the train comes through in order to board the train.  When the stuntman does the gag, you can see the mat that he’s jumping onto come up into view.

While crime stories and film noir continued on in the 1950s, the gangster picture went out of style.  It showed up only rarely in the 1960s, such as with John Boorman’s Point Blank in 1968 (which was later remade – poorly – by Mel Gibson as Payback).  That all changed in the 1970’s, first with Coppola’s Godfather and Godfather II.  Then Martin Scorsese came along and claimed the genre with Mean Streets, followed by Goodfellas and Casino.  Eventually the rap industry turned “gangster” into a sub-culture of society.  Watching Cagney in White Heat, though, could show self-styled gangsters of today a thing or two about the classic gangster style.


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