White Heat (1949)

White Heat (1949) is the ultimate white hot gangster semi-documentary heist prison movie in the entirety of the classic film noir canon.

Super hot action and direction from Raoul Walsh flings James Cagney, Edmond O'Brien and Virginia Mayo into some of the best acting of their lives, elegantly supported by Steve Cochran

This explosive exploitation noir comes in at a huge length of nearly two hours.

White Heat (1949) is a multiple set of movies, seeming to smash them together at high speed, very much like the train which kicks the picture off, emerging from the tunnel to be robbed by the gang.

SPOILERS! Four people are murdered in quick succession at the opening of White Heat, and it sets the tone for some nasty-ass action on the run in a criminal gang; the psychopath; the matriarch; the floozie; the back-stabber; the dolt; the lame-ass; the runt; the muscle; and then the question is what could possibly go wrong with them cooped up in the wilds.

James Cagney is the king of homicidal psychosis in White Heat (1949)

This desperate-ass gang go on the run in manners most reminiscent of he previous decade; it's almost a blessing; before White Heat morphs instantly into a prison movie.

Margaret Wycherly and Virginia Mayo as Ma and Verna Jarrett in White Heat (1949)

Cody Jarrett has to be one of film noir's most maladjusted and blatantly anti-social characters. Despite this, and thanks to James Cagney and Raoul Walsh, he is not just believable, but also sympathetic. It isn't just his violent nature alone, but in tandem with his constant search for a rebellious and pig-headed kind of glory, this gives his character two sides, enough to save him from becoming a stereotype. 

The women in his life White Heat (1949)

In contrast, Edmond O'Brien's character Hank Fallon is quite monotonous in his pursuit, and exhibits a rather indifferent and emotionless normality which as a representative of social justice, is not in fact attractive. In fact, if you add to this the psychologically false and underhand methods he uses to gain Cody's trust, there is an interesting noir dichotomy - - the good guys use bad practice. It's lies and deceit that are the best tools for justice, and anti-social as he remains, Cody represents something that is true to itself. 

Virginia Mayo and Steve Cochran in White Heat (1949)

Individual scenes in White Heat (1949) are stark. Big Ed and Verna kiss while chewing gum, and the camera moves quickly to see Ma Garrett watching them from a window. There is not the general film noir feel of oppressive lighting and strange angles, but a much quicker and more vital repertoire of camera work.  Later when Ed moves in hard on Verna, things become even more serious.

The underlying media myth in White Heat is that of the heroic outlaw. The contrast between the rather straightforward acting and camera work in the law enforcement scenes, creates a dull backdrop against which the explosive, often stark and fast moving, humorous and violent scenes which feature Cody, Ma, Big Ed and Verna, can offer this mythology write full and large.

Virginia Mayo in White Heat (1949)

What is so exciting about the media myth of the heroic outlaw is that the audience are now primed to accept it with the addition of psychopathy, brilliantly expressed in the outlaw's relationship with his mother, his random and violent headaches, and his all-out mania when it comes to killing and crime.

All of which is immortally combined in the explosive pyre at the conclusion of White Heat, to create a tragic grandeur that is genuinely something from the past, from before World War 2.

Fred Clark as 'The Trader' in White Heat (1949)

Also quite unique  to White Heat (1949) are the visions of technology being used to track criminals. There's electronic tracking equipment used in great detail, and it's all shown even down to the not so inconspicuous radio car, which looks really cool for the era. There isn't any other gangster film or film noir which goes into so much detail in this department.

GPS and Radio Car — early cop tech in White Heat (1949)

The same goes for Edmond O'Brien's character, as he's a new kind of cop. This is a cop with a degree in psychology, replacing the hard-boiled tough guy cops of the period, with something smoother, a man of high intelligence able to go undercover and work from there.

Virginia Mayo plays Verna, the fur-coat lovin' unfaithful love to James Cagney's psychopathic criminal character Cody. She has a thing for Big Ed (Steve Cochran), another member of the gang, but dark and menacing as he is, Cochran quakes at the idea of dealing with Cody's anger. 

Steve Cochran in classic film noir White Heat (1949)

Probably the most interesting supporting character is Cody's mother, Ma Jarrett played by Margaret Wycherly. Part scheming criminal mastermind and part matriarchal witch, the character of Ma pulls on every negative stereotype about older women going to create not just a believable character, but an essential plot element that guides so many of the decisions and actions.

The combination of mother's boy and remorseless killing machine is a winning formula, making White Heat (1949) one of the most important gangster movies of all time. 

In prison, that is where Cody receives his diagnosis, and so all of society can recognise this fearsome new type: "homicidal psychosis".

Edmond O'Brien in White Heat (1949)

As an antidote to The Public Enemy (1931) in which James Cagney played Tom Powers, White Heat brought to an end the epic cycle of gangster films. This list may look a little like this:

    Little Ceasar (1931)

    The Public Enemy (1931)

    Smart Money (1931)

    The Little Giant (1933)

    Picture Snatcher (1933)

    The Mayor of Hell (1933)

    Lady Killer (1933)

    'G' Men (1935)

    The Petrified Forest (1936)

    Bullets or Ballots (1936)

    Black Legion (1937)

    San Quentin (1937)

    Kid Galahad (1937)

    A Slight Case of Murder (1938)

    The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse (1938)

    Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

    Each Dawn I Die (1939)

    The Roaring Twenties (1939)

    Invisible Stripes (1939)

    Brother Orchid (1940)

    City For Conquest (1940)

    Larceny Inc. (1942)

    On The Carpet (1946)

    San Quentin (1946)

    White Heat (1949)

One of the strengths of White Heat is that it doesn't make a statement. It may be about morality, but moralising was not Raoul Walsh's thing. 

Face off and betrayal in White Heat (1949)

It's not like a lot of the other gangster style films made at the time. There isn't any exposition of explanation around Cody Jarrett's condition, it's merely shown in all its glory and madness - - and although there is a tiny bit of talk around Freud, it's nothing like the usual levels for the late 1940s and early 1950s, which liked nothing better in fact than to top and tail some of its mob productions with moral lectures from police officials, and in some cases politicians.

Ian MacDonald in White Heat (1949)

This of course refers to Highway 301 (1950), which was made at the same time, and features Steve Cochran in the 'Cody Jarrett' psychopathic gang-leader role. Unlike White Heat, Highway 301 is laden with moralising messers and messages, with politicians galore and a police lecture at the conclusion. 

Historic chemical works finale in White Heat (1949)

The whole idea of the ruthless and now psychopathic villain was exciting. Compare this to the Cagney hoods of the 1930s, who always rose up diligently from the slums to some kind of aspirational criminal status. By comparison, Cody Jarrett is something far more enticing and fearful - - a wild killing machine.

Some may be forgiven for excluding White Heat from the classic film noir canon, and the main grounds would be the lack of moral ambiguity. This would be fair, were it not for the element of psychopathy which more than makes up for the lack of striking and odd camera angles, and the sheer absence of any film noir mood lighting.

There is a significant amount of driving in White Heat, hot and cold pursuits included. 

Ma has a tail in White Heat (1949)

Virginia Mayo, Margaret Wycherly and James Cagney in White Heat (1949)

White Heat (1949) on Wikipedia

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