Raoul Walsh's 'White Heat': Cosmic Battleground

By Vivaan Shah
James Cagney in Raoul Walsh's White Heat
James Cagney in Raoul Walsh's White Heat
'Raoul Walsh, one of D.W Griffith's most gifted disciples, was a tragedian of Shakespearean proportions who embedded in the genre of the gangster film- the figure of the sympathetic outlaw, the rebel in the Jesse James tradition. You didn't root for the police but instead for the bad guy who you knew was doomed. Walsh's outcasts were bigger than life, they stood beyond good and evil, their lust for life was insatiable, even as their actions precipitated their tragic destiny. The world was too small for them and they would often be given a cosmic battleground.'

                       -- MARTIN SCORSESE 

Everyone has a favourite film—the one—the single solitary picture that pops to one's mind when asked what their favourite movie of all time is. The one film that changed their life, the one that spoke to them deeply and was able to summon up a sort of catharsis in the viewing of it. For me that film has always been 1949's White Heat made by the inimitable Raoul Walsh and starring James Cagney, one of my favourite actors of all time. Cagney's gangsters as well as those of Edward G Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield and George Raft were spiritual precursors to the ones later essayed by DeNiro, Pacino and Joe Pesci. All of these men had some personal knowledge, background or real life experience with members of organized crime whether it be street corner hoodlums or even small time racketeers. They all inordinately possessed what Cagney referred to as a 'touch of the gutter'. They spoke the language, bodily as well as vocally, breathed the vernacular and carried the scent of the street no matter which circles they mixed in. They brought an authenticity to these portrayals that only real life experience could provide. Cagney and Garfield grew up in the Lower East Side, George Raft in the notorious Hell's Kitchen, De Niro and Scorsese in Little Italy, Pesci in Jersey. 

The gangster film can be classified in two categories—the urban film, mostly set in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, usually dealing with characters of different ethnicities such as Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants; and the rural gangster picture, born on the frontier and closer to the western, dealing with outlaws as opposed to racketeers. Films like White Heat, High Sierra, Bonnie and Clyde, Bloody Mama, Thieves Like Us, and The Grissom Gang fall into this latter category. These films usually dealt with outlaw gangs engaging in a vast variety of detailed heists rather than crime syndicates operating during prohibition. The first category is exemplified by such titles as—The Roaring Twenties, Angels with Dirty Faces, City for Conquest, Scarface, Little Caesar, Out of the fog, East of the River, Invisible Stripes, The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, Bullets or Ballots, Force of Evil, On the Waterfront, Mean Streets, The Godfather, The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Once Upon a time in America, and Goodfellas. Real life criminals like Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Ma Barker on the one hand and Al Capone, Bugs Moran, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel on the other, could also be sub-divided into these categories as rural and urban. 

One can simply observe the transition of a genre through the war by looking at two Raoul Walsh gangster films. The Roaring Twenties was a culmination of the 30s Warner Bros proletarianism and also a sort of twisted Horatio Alger Story about the American Dream. All this culminated in the hostile psychosis of 'White Heat', one of the toughest pictures ever made, where the same protagonist first a tragic figure is now a raving lunatic. It's similar to the John Wayne-John Ford progression from Stage Coach to The Searchers. White Heat is what is referred to as a Freudian gangster film. It's about a psychopathic diminutive gangster with a Napolean and Oedipus complex. Sporting a sternly tilted down fedora and a tweed overcoat wrapped around him like a cloak, our protagonist Cody Jarrett resembles at times The Joker, at times one of Dick Tracy's gallery of gargoyles, or even at times Joe Pesci's seminal Tommy DeVito, or a more bloated version of Cagney's own Tom Powers or Rocky Sullivan. With two sinuous curls unfurling on either side and his forehead lodged in the centre like a cement slab, his head tilted slightly sideways, and his mouth curving downwards, he struts with a perturbed pugilist's stance, exhibiting all the while, a sheer psychopathic devotion to his mother, Ma Jarrett (loosely modeled upon Ma Barker), who by proxy runs their little outfit which holds up trains, banks, armored cars, industrial payrolls, etc. Cody's second in command Big Ed, brilliantly embodied by the carnivorous Steve Cochran, plots to overturn the gang behind Cody's back with the aid of Cody's moll Verna while he is serving a stretch for armed robbery in the penitentiary. The Treasury Department who is pursuing Jarrett decides to plant a mole, played by Edmond O'Brien, in Jarrett's cell. He manages to befriend Cody and they bust out of prison together. What ensues is an expertly plotted cops and robbers hot pursuit, with slow burn chase scenes in patrol cars, with blaring sirens, rambling police radios, radar detection devices, magnetic frequency tracers, pre-GPS location bearings. The law and order machinery is painstakingly depicted as invincible, as technically advanced in the mechanisms it employs to carry out its tasks. They use maps, tracking devices and a squad of several cars in close communication with each other to tail Cody and his gang. The sequences are as exhilarating as anything cinema has ever produced and also sort of appeal to the child in all of us. It's reminiscent of the spirit and procedure of combat, in the way the police car communicate with each other via radio and the way Walsh cuts to each subsequent car as they rattle out a piece of information into the speaker. The film is almost reminiscent of some of the Loony Tunes cartoons in its dramaturgical extravagance. Lines like 'I was gonna split 50-50 with a copper' have a primal appeal bordering on the mythic. 
James Cagney delivers his famous 'Made it, Ma! Top of the world!' monologue in Raoul Walsh's White Heat
James Cagney delivers his famous 'Made it, Ma! Top of the world!' monologue in Raoul Walsh's White Heat
Cagney's famous prison outbursts when he finds out his mother has been killed is the finest piece of acting ever filmed. Watch his body language as he distorts into a primordial ape like form. Apparently while filming, the extras and ex-cons in the sequence didn't know that Cagney was going to go bonkers, so their baffled reactions are genuine. It's the quintessential descent into madness competing perhaps only with Bogart's Fred C Dobb's in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The performances and drama in these films are almost like Greek tragedies exploding before our very eyes, the emotions so heightened and operatic that they cross the furthest frontier of melodrama and hit at a deeper truth than what realism might have achieved. In fact most of the Warner Bros films of this era were like that. It was perhaps the studio with the most singular aesthetic in the history of cinema; a close second would be Germany's UFA. These films all had a particular texture, in the use of faces, voices, cinematography, or Max Steiner's thumping background score, even in the costumes and production design, mostly on the studio backlot which doubled up as everything from a Banana Plantation in Borneo to a rubbled war torn European town. The film's final showdown with the police takes place in a chemical power plant which explodes as Cody screams--'Made it, Ma! Top of the world!'. Cody Jarrett really starts to go nuts as he surrounded by the police, firing back at them incessantly even when faced with tear gas and machine gun fire. Cagney's acting in this scene is extremely complex; the depths of derangement plumbed in his maniacal laugher itself set a standard for playing insane. There's nothing over the top or phoney about it, it carries the cold hard sweat of real life experience. One ought only to read his autobiography 'Cagney on Cagney' to understand some of the things the man had seen in his life. He said he drew upon some childhood memories of a visit to a mental institution, in order to faithfully render the sobs, the screams, and groans. It's chilling stuff and it gives one goose flesh to simply think about it. 'I don't know, maybe I am nuts.' Cody's admits, in a rare gentle scene where he confides in the undercover cop (the Edmond O'Brien character). 'All I ever had was Ma' note is detectable in his stiff voice which almost begins to tear. 'Without her who knows... maybe I'd wind up like my old man and die, kicking and screaming in the nuthouse.' It's a deeply moving scene, as is the famous scene where he gets one of his headaches and is comforted by his Ma, sitting on her lap. The film's hurls forward at a velocity that cuts through the screen. Max Steiner's background score is like the thunder to its lightning momentum. The movie opens with an aggressive swish-pan from a speeding train to a car careening across a turning. Walsh immediately cuts to Cagney inside the car, seated on the passenger seat, impatiently tapping on his watch as he signals the getaway driver to step on it. There's something electric about Walsh's direction. Along with being one of the most tender gangster films this one also happens to be one of the most brutal. A rail engineer gets shot point blank in the stomach and falls on a lever letting out a gust of steam that scalds another gang member's face. He spends the next scene wrapped up in a bandage like a Frankenstein monster begging Cody not to leave him. There's a sequence where Cody, munching on a chicken leg goes up to the trunk of his car and asks a person he has locked up in there how he's doing in there. When told that it's a little stuffy, he says—'A little stuffy ha? I'll give it a little air.' He emptied three bullet holes into the trunk and tosses the chicken leg away. This was the first post modern gangster film. 

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your valuable thoughts are highly appreciated!  

About Author - 

Vivaan Shah is an actor, director, writer, musician, singer, and painter. He has tried his hands at various art forms though acting is the one through which he earns his bread and butter. He studied in The Doon School, St.Stephen's College and Jai Hind College. He has been active in the theatre scene since he was a child. Theatre is unquestionably the most important medium in his life. Currently he is trying to make it as a fiction writer of genre and hardboiled novels.

White Heat - Trailer (YouTube)

People who liked this also liked...
Share on Google Plus


Post a Comment

Thanks for sharing for valuable opinion. We would be delighted to have you back.