Film Reviews

White Heat Raoul Walsh

Rating - 8/10

When White Heat was released in 1949, the gangster film had been long spent as a critical and commercial force in American cinema. As the effects of the Great Depression began to wane, so did the popularity of the genre. Whilst the early, pre-Code pictures had celebrated the gangster as an iniquitous modern day Robin Hood archetype in Herbert Hoover’s America, the Roosevelt-era had ushered forth a subtle shift in the presentation of the gangster. Neither commemorated, nor exactly denigrated by the end of its classic first wave, the gangster and his era were viewed as period pieces, relics of a lawless age of excess typified in films like The Roaring Twenties. With the onset of the Second World War, the genre fell into dissolution, replaced by detective serials and Noirs.

Even the genre’s most iconic star, James Cagney no longer appeared in such films. After finally defeating typecasting with his Academy Award winning performance as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cagney felt it was time to engage in more serious and dramatically-testing projects. However, by the end of the decade, Cagney’s wartime output had been a mixed bag of minor hits and major flops. Returning to Warner Brothers after a prolonged absence working as an independent, Cagney was invited to mark his homecoming with yet another gangster picture, White Heat

Helmed by Cagney’s The Roaring Twenties director Raoul Walsh, White Heat was arguably the final act of closure in the classic gangster cycle began at Warner Brothers almost twenty years earlier. The film stars Cagney as Cody Jarrett, the psychotic leader of a criminal gang, who is the target of a federal investigation after he participates in a blood-soaked train robbery. Despite being married to sulky blonde Verna (Virginia Mayo), Jarrett places his faith only in one woman: his mother (Margaret Wycherly).
Mentally ill as a result of semi-epileptic seizures, Jarrett is pathologically devoted to his aging mother. So much so, that when Jarrett confesses to committing a lighter offence in order to avoid a prolonged stint in jail, he leaves the gang’s criminal matriarch in charge. Unbeknownst to Jarrett, the federal authorities are keen to infiltrate his criminal network through undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) known to Jarrett by his pseudonym, Vic Pardo. Using Pardo as their inside man, the federal government try to implicate Jarrett in the earlier crime. Yet, as time passes, Jarrett’s volatility and instability further comes into question, as his outbursts become more sadistic, frequent and visceral.
Belligerent and violent, White Heat can be categorized as both the closing chapter of the traditional Hollywood crime drama centered upon the lone gangster and the beginning of its short-lived replacement, the “police procedural:” a semi-Noirish genre containing films like Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948), Anthony Mann’s The Border Incident (1949) and Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 (1948).
Developed primarily in the late Forties, the “police procedurals” were crime dramas principally dedicated to illustrating the operations of modern police organizations. Shot often on location in a semi-documentary, neo-realistic fashion, these films tended to focus on a primary detective who utilizes the latest technological innovations afforded to him to solve complex modern crimes. By the mid-Fifties, the cinematic "police procedural" dwindled, as the sub-genre found greater success and longevity in the then burgeoning medium of television. Although, Walsh tends to focus on Jarrett’s status as a gangster, he is also keen to utilize facets of the “police procedural” through displays of technological instruments aiding the federal authorities such as in-car radios, oscillators and tracking devices.
In its context and construction, White Heat is an exceptional example of how social and cultural attitudes had changed in post-war Hollywood. The Cold War had rekindled anti-communist sentiments in American culture. As a result, many of the liberal social themes espoused in Hollywood’s Depression and Second World War-era output were quickly dropped from its post-war fare with alarming alacrity. To the nascent post-war viewer, these touches were subtle, but incredibly powerful in their direction and sentiments.
For example, during the genre’s heyday at Warner Brothers, the gangster films were often contextual denunciations and paradigms of urban plight. In films such as The Public Enemy (Wellman, 1931), Angels With Dirty Faces (Curtiz, 1938) or The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, 1939), there are often strong implications that crime is centrally the product of socio-economic factors, brought upon by elements such as cultural prejudice, unequal access to opportunities, urban squalor and broken promises. Therefore, the gangsters of Hollywood’s classic period were predominantly derived from working-class and immigrant neighborhoods in which post-WWI unemployment and discrimination were rife.
Nevertheless, almost a decade after the first wave of gangster films had subsided; the socio-economic dynamics that defined the Depression-era gangster films became overwhelmingly absent in fare like White Heat. Subsequently, internal rather than external features became the key ingredient in establishing the immediate post-war criminal. Sociological and anthropological motives gave way to biological construction. Thus, whereas society was responsible in The Roaring Twenties for creating former WWI doughboy turned gangster Eddie Bartlett through a failure to secure employment opportunities for veterans, a personalized combination of debased familial nurturing and twisted genetics produced Cody Jarrett. Criminality therefore became viewed as an aberration and a deviation from the social norm in post-war cinema, rather than a product of culture and economics. Resultantly, unlike White Heat’s Depression-era predecessors, there is little or no sympathy for the gangster anti-heroes in Walsh’s snappily directed film.
This psychological reasoning is also visible in the film’s pop-Freudian leanings, particularly in the strange and deep bond between Jarrett and his mother. With psychology taking on greater credence and acceptance in post-war American society, Hollywood films had begun to incorporate psychological themes into projects during this era in films such as Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool (1949). But while Hitchcock and Preminger utilized psychology for melodramatic effect, Walsh’s film incorporates psychology to create an entirely new brand of gangster. While madness had generally been associated with criminality in horror films, these psycho-biological traits were transplanted in White Heat into contemporary crime drama.
Jarrett is presented as a depraved, paranoid and aggressive human being. Broken mentally Jarrett is also unable to engage in social acts of trust or empathy. Aside from the odd rapid-fire quip, Jarrett kills without thought, guilt or hesitation. As a result, Cagney’s Jarrett helped usher in other sadistic criminal figures ranging from the mother-fixated Norman Bates in Psycho to No Country For Old Men’s Anton Chirugh. A criminal monster of the atomic age, Jarrett’s ascent to his warped interpretation of the American Dream is one of murky hubris. While past gangsters saw the end-product of their immoral actions and lifestyles metaphorically blow-up in their respective faces, Jarrett partakes in a demise overloaded with literal overtones. This plain act of self-immolation achieves a sense of darkness unthinkable in American cinema prior to the Second World War.
White Heat therefore operates as an astute example of the changing nature of post-war American cinema. Although the psychological literalness in particular today appears burdensome and weighty, White Heat still manages to pack a wallop largely due to Cagney’s crazed performance, as sharply typified in the film’s legendary cafeteria sequence. Brooding with betrayal (sexual and personal) and suffering, White Heat remains as one of the cornerstone’s of the gangster genre, yet one that overtly reflects its post-war upbringing in its Oedipal relationships, biological implications and an end to the Depression era's sympathetic presentation of the gangster figure.