Director: Raoul Walsh
After a couple of modestly successful films, the third film Cagney Productions made, a screen version of William Saroyan's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Time of Your Life (1948), flopped, losing half a million dollars. To pay off the company's debts, the Cagneys signed a distribution deal with Warner Bros., and James Cagney found himself back at Warners making yet another low-budget gangster picture. The picture was called White Heat, and again the actor wasn't impressed with the script, dismissing it as "very formula...without a touch of imagination or originality." He describes how he and the director Raoul Walsh worked hard to give the film a level of quality they felt was lacking in its screenplay. In the end, Cagney modestly called it "a good picture in a number of ways." Most critics and filmgoers, though, view it with far greater enthusiasm, as an electrifying film (in 2008 it was ranked #4 on the American Film Institute's list of the 10 greatest gangster films) in which Cagney gives one of the great performances of his career.
White Heat is the film in which Cagney plays the psychotic gang leader Cody Jarrett. When he first read the screenplay, Cagney found Cody Jarrett "just another murderous thug" like the ones he had so often played at Warners in the 1930s. So he and director Raoul Walsh came up with the idea to distinguish Jarrett from similar characters by emphasizing the aberrant psychology behind his behavior. Prewar gangster films seldom dwelt on the subtleties of motivation behind the criminality of their characters, content for the most part to suggest basic forces like greed, egoism, deprived backgrounds, and a culture of settling conflict by violence. In the years right after the Second World War, though, there was a fascination in American film with all things psychological, and this fascination extended to just about every non-comedic genre of the Hollywood studios. Not long before making White Heat, Raoul Walsh himself had directed the film often cited as the first psychological Western, Pursued (1947).
Cody and his Ma have not only a close emotional relationship, but a close working relationship as well. When Cody is arrested for robbery and sent to prison, Ma proves herself more than capable of managing the remaining gang members in his absence. And when Cody later tells one of his gang that he and Ma always split their share of the gang's profit 50/50, it becomes plain that she's a full-fledged member of the gang, just as ruthless as Cody and even more calculating. If Cody is the gang's muscle, Ma is its brain. Moreover, her control over Cody acts as a restraint on his more violent impulses. In the middle of the film, when Cody learns in prison that Ma is dead and has his famous psychological meltdown in the prison dining hall, it's as though an uncontrollable monster has been released. Not surprisingly, the whole tone of the film changes at this point. The emphasis shifts from the psychology of antisocial behavior to violent action—a prison break, Cody's revenge on the members of the gang who have betrayed him, a payroll heist at a petroleum refinery, and a nighttime shoot-out that leads to the famous finale at the refinery.
Holding all this together is Cagney's hair-raising performance as the demented Cody Jarrett. Cagney's attitude toward acting was always that it was primarily a job. "With me, a career was a simple matter of putting groceries on the table," he wrote. "I never thought of myself as anything but a journeyman actor." Without the theoretical underpinnings of the Stanislavski/Actors Studio approach to acting, which he always rejected as too self-indulgent, Cagney relied on his instincts and above all preparation and hard work to put his characters across. And in White Heat it really shows. Cagney might have thought the screenplay of the picture deficient, but something in the character of Cody Jarrett clicked with Cagney's fearless determination to take this character further into psychotic menace than he had ever gone before. The result is the ultimate Cagney gangster, a figure that in comparison to similar characters Cagney played—his Tom Powers in Public Enemy or his Rocky Sullivan in Angels with Dirty Faces, for instance—simply eclipses them with its remorseless evil.
Another trait of Cagney's screen presence that serves him well in White Heat is the sheer physicality of his acting. In his musical and boxing pictures, this physicality is obvious, but it's present to some degree in all his performances. In White Heat you can really see him acting with his entire body, and his control over matching the intensity of his physical presence to the requirements of the scene is remarkable. This physicality can be restrained, as in the scene where he sits docilely in Ma's lap, or in the many scenes in which he menaces other people just with his belligerent stance and facial expression. Consider the scene where after escaping from prison he waylays his two-timing wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) in the motel garage. Mayo was an actress of limited range, but I don't believe she ever topped her extraordinary reactions to Cagney's sinister presence in this scene. I've heard her say in interviews that Cagney was so focused and intense in his acting that he was genuinely scary in those scenes and that little effort was needed to react to him with terror, something which is only too apparent in her facial expressions, and a real testament to Cagney's ability to inhabit a character with utter conviction—even one so completely opposite from his real nature as Cody Jarrett.
The other big hyperkinetic set piece is the film's sensational conclusion at the refinery. By this point Cody has lost all self-control and even the instinct to survive. He's no longer driven by the need for money, power, or any of the other gains of his criminal behavior. All he has left is his anarchic rage and his compulsion to destroy, and Ma is no longer around to rein him in. The sequence is directed by Walsh in the dynamic style that made his reputation as an action director, but it is Cagney's furiously aggressive physicality in these scenes that propels the film to its incendiary conclusion. The higher he climbs up the petroleum towers at the refinery, the more manic his body language becomes and the more his rage against the world drives his self-destructive actions. When, defiant and unrepentant to the very end, he looks upward and shouts "Made it, Ma! Top o' the world!" just before going up in flames, it's both shocking and pathetic, one of the great movie endings and one of the great movie exit lines of all time.
Cagney Blogathon Page at The Movie Projector. James Cagney's autobiography is Cagney by Cagney (Doubleday, 1976).
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Cagney should have won an Oscar.
And Margaret Wycherley, a Best Supporting award.
Vienna's Classic Hollywood
Vienna, I agree that Cagney should have had at least an Oscar nomination for this performance, and if I had been a voter I certainly would have voted for him over any of the other nominees of that year.Delete
Oh my gosh - this is an amazing film and Cagney's performance is fearless. If there was ever any doubt about his acting ability, this should silence any critic. He is chilling and I agree that Mayo really met the challenge here. Cagney's post-modern psycho is disturbing and sadly familiar. Great post and thanks ever so for hosting this awesome tribute event to Mr. C.ReplyDelete
Flick Chick, Cagney's performance here was ahead of its time, especially in its unrepentant nihilism. It took critics and audiences a while to catch up with him! He didn't just repeat what he had already done with other gangster roles but took it in a new direction, and with his customary 100% commitment to making his character convincing.Delete
Just a wonderful write up here, RDF. You hit just about everything right on the head. I didn't know that his prison breakdown was unknown to the other cast members--I'll watch with new eyes the next time I see this. Good point about the Verna Cody showdown--I never saw Mayo act so well. And, you're more than right about the ending of White Heat--what a way to go out! Excellent post.ReplyDelete
Kim, thank you! After reading about Cagney surprising the cast that way, and another reference to the scene having what at the time was a record number of camera setups, I watched the scene in the dining hall a bit differently. It's just speculation on my part, but I wonder if Walsh had cameras set up at strategic points in the hall, filmed the whole thing in one continuous take (Cagney was a compulsive rehearser but liked to film scenes without breaking them up and didn't like re-takes), then edited it together the way we see it. I can't confirm this without research, but that's the way it looked to me.Delete
It's very difficult to pick a favourite Cagney performance, but I think this might just be his greatest - and you have done it justice in your fine posting, R.D. I was especially interested in your comments about how the treatment of Cody's mental problems in this hasn't dated as much as some of the other psychological films made around this period, since I've just seen two noirs which fell into just this trap of too much explanation, 'Possessed' (1947), starring Joan Crawford as a woman driven to murder, and 'Christmas Holiday' (1944) with Gene Kelly surprisingly cast as a mother-fixated psycho (so many of these characters are mother-fixated). Both Crawford and Kelly give great performances but a lot of the impact is taken away by psychologists plucking out the heart of their mystery. If I remember rightly, there is a brief attempt at a similarly clunky explanation in 'White Heat', when someone (a prison official?) says that Cody originally pretended to have headaches to get his mother's attention, which then became real - you immediately wonder how anyone could know if his headaches were real or not! But fortunately nobody is wheeled on at the end to explain away the wonderful madness of teh ending.ReplyDelete
It's interesting that Cagney said he suggested sitting on his mother's lap - this is something which he also does in his very first film, 'Sinners' Holiday', and the incestuous connotations are there in that scene too, although it does somehow carry a greater shock in 'White Heat' when he is 50. Anyway, this is a great posting, R.D., and the whole blogathon is proving a wonderful event - thanks so much for organising it all.
Judy, I'll watch anything with Cagney in it, and I agree it's hard to pick a favorite Cagney performance. Most people probably think of him for his criminal characters, but he successfully played many different types of characters, which is something I hope people take away from the blogathon. But if I had to pick one favorite/best Cagney performance it would be this one. I think the ultimate lame psychiatric explanation has to be at the end of "Psycho." It's so lame and the psychiatrist so hammy that I have to believe Hitchcock used it at least in part as a sendup of this kind of scene. And yes, when the 50-year old Cagney sits in Ma's lap he looks and behaves like a middle-aged infant. It should be campy but it's not in the least.Delete
Excellent review (as to be expected at The Movie Projector). I think Cagney gives his best screen performance in WHITE HEAT, though he also benefited from a juicy role (well, after he and Walsh embellished it). For me, the most interesting aspect of WHITE HEAT is its influence on the 1950s crime drama genre. It possesses a stark realism, a level of brutality, and a psychological undercurrent that carried into later films like THE ASPHALT JUNGLE and THE BIG HEAT. I want to second Judy's thank for organizing the Cagney Blogathon--it's been awesome.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Rick! "White Heat" does seem an advance on the traditional studio gangster picture, and it does seem to lead the way for, as you say, greater realism, more brutality, and more psychological insight into character behavior--the things we take for granted in modern crime movies and TV shows. Knowing how extensive Martin Scorsese's knowledge of American films of this time is, and how the crime dramas of the late 40s-early 50s (which were shown in theaters when he was a boy) appeal to him, this time when I watched "White Heat" I saw more of a connection between it and Scorsese's crime films.Delete
First of all, R.D., thank you for hosting this awesome blogathon. It's been a privilege and joy to participate in it.ReplyDelete
I love "White Heat." It comes in at #3 on my list of Cagney faves...behind "Angels with Dirty Faces" and "The Public Enemy" But they're all very close on one another's heels, so it's barely third. Cagney's performance in "White Heat" is absolutely riveting. It is unbelievable that he didn't even garner an Academy Award nomination for his work here...let alone walk away with the win. He is simply nothing short of brilliant.
Margaret Wycherly gives an excellent performance as well. When you consider that earlier in the decade she was the mother of Alvin C. York (1941's "Sergeant York"), and in this film she is a controlling, incestual-appearing mother of a heartless psychopath, you realize she had a broad range of talent.
I've read Mr. Cagney's autobiography twice now, and the overwhelming feeling I have taken away from it both times is that he was an extremely humble man...light years away from the characters he portrayed.
I love your write-up...and that bone-chilling video you included.
Thanks again for organizing this awesome salute to a most brilliant actor.
Patti, those are three wonderful performances you name, all in a similar vein but all distinct from each other. So I can see how you would have a hard time picking one over the other! You're not the first to mention Margaret Wycherly in a comment. In rewatching the film in preparation for writing the post, I became more aware than ever before of how good she is as Cody's Ma. I have to second your observation that both she and Cagney should have at least gotten Oscar nominations. The film did get one nomination for screenwriting, which I find interesting in view of Cagney's comments in his autobiography about his poor first impression of the script. Reading his autobiography was a real eye-opener for me because the real man was so balanced, sensitive, and clearly observant and intelligent. What a focused and committed actor he must have been to play characters so different from himself so convincingly.Delete
Cody was one messed up dude. You really captured the raw power of Cagney's performances.ReplyDelete
"White Heat" has worked as an introduction to classic films for young people in my life. I showed it to my daughter while she was in high school and she was so impressed she made her friends watch it. They grumbled about it being old and in B&W, but they were won over completely.
I must add my voice to the chorus of thank-yous for the blogathon.
Caftan Woman, what a great idea to use this film as an introduction to classic movies for young people. Its violence and perversity are mild compared even to what's shown on TV these days. But its toughness makes it seem more a forerunner of today's crime films than a relic. I know that one way kids learn (everyone, for that matter) is to see the similarity between what's new to them and what's already familiar.Delete
Probably Cagney's greatest achievement, after "Yankee Doodle Dandy." For those who think Cagney always was himself, just watch these two movies back to back and see what a wonderfully versatile actor he was.ReplyDelete
I never knew that story about Cagney not telling anyone how he would react during the breakdown scene. Fascinating, and you're right about Edmund O'Brien's expression.
I remember during the AFI tribute to Cagney they showed the clip where the guy in the car's trunk complains how stuffy it is and Cody says let me give you a little air, pulls out a gun and puts several bullets into the trunk. Afterwards John Wayne got up to say a few words and then complimented Cagney on that scene, ending with, "I would have done something dumb, like open the trunk." That got a big laugh from everyone, including Cagney.
Of all the AFI Life Achievement Awards dinners I've seen over the years, the James Cagney one may be my favorite. It seemed to me a pretty magical night.
This has been a wonderful blogathon so far. I join in the choruses of thank yous for hosting it.
Kevin, Cagney WAS an incredibly versatile actor, and it's interesting that you picked such opposite characters as his greatest acting achievements. I'd likely put these two performances at the head of the list too, although in the reverse order from you. Those two films would be an ideal double feature to show Cagney's range. Some great actors like Cary Grant never struck me as really comfortable and secure when they tried something outside their normal range, even though they could be very good in such roles. But I never get this feeling from Cagney, and I think the fact that he considered himself a working actor and not a star with an image to protect gave him the courage to try new things. In his private life too he was very much the working man who shunned celebrity.Delete
Terrific post on this iconic Cagney film. I think both its reputation and his performance in it have deservedly grown over the years. Cagney may not have been a Method actor, but he always created a character 'arc,' showing you how that person developed through the narrative, and he always established a core behavioral pattern. One thing I find interesting in White Heat, and that doesn't seem much commented on, is his relation to Edmond O'Brien's character, how O'Brien becomes "Ma," taking over as the brains of the gang. Jarrett becomes more dependent on O'Brien (notice how he becomes quieter in O'Brien's presence, as he did when he was with Ma), and I think part of his meltdown to the end is because he discovers O'Brien's betrayal. Like with the loss of Ma, Cody has 'lost' another trusted person in his life and he dissolves in rage. Cagney really shows us that aspect of Cody's character and how it affects his behavior.ReplyDelete
And thanks again for another great blogathon and for bringing together so many interesting posts on this essential American actor!
GOM, thank you so much. And thank you for adding your insights into the film. Cagney was no Method actor, but he WAS a methodical actor. From what I've read about him, he based his performances on meticulous advance thinking and preparation but wasn't afraid to be spontaneous if he thought something more was needed. He wrote of what hard work acting is, and for someone so methodical, I'm sure it was! In the future, I'll be watching for the shift in the Cagney-O'Brien dynamic now that you've pointed it out. I can see your point about Cagney setting up O'Brien to become a partner in crime, and I think this misplaced trust is the way O'Brien is able to bring him down.Delete
As expected, you have delivered the goods R.D. and are sitting on top of the world! For the second time in about a year you have hosted a fantastic blogothon that has attracted some talented people. And you couldn't have chosen a more popular subject, and a prolific one at that. WHITE HEAT is on just about everybody's short list when it comes to assessing Cagney's most unforgettable performances. And the scene in the prison cafeteria that you link to rates right up there with the chilling final sequence in PUBLIC ENEMY and the famed grapefruit scene with Mae Clark. While your review sizes up this Raoul Walsh picture perfectly, I applaud you for reserving your analytical heft for a superlative discussion of Cody's character and Cagney's performance. I was always taken with the black humor, especially that early scene when Cody blows holes in the car truck to give his victims some "air."ReplyDelete
This is a Cagney masterwork, and you have given it a definitive examination.
Thank you, Sam. It's my favorite Cagney performance and favorite Cagney film too. Walsh is considered one of the great studio directors and was one of the half dozen or so directors chosen by Richard Schickel for his "The Men Who Made the Movies" series. Although I enjoy the kind of action picture he was so good at, it's not my favorite kind of studio movie. He did make several movies I like very much ("The Roaring Twenties" and "High Sierra" immediately come to mind, as well as the early 20th-century Americana of "Gentlemen Jim" and Cagney's "The Strawberry Blonde" and the noirish musical "The Man I Love," which I've always had a soft spot for). But for me "White Heat" is his masterpiece. The film has many understandably famous scenes, but I have to confess my favorite moment isn't one of the big ones, but the one you mention, when the now completely mad Cody shoots the holes in the trunk of the car with one hand to let in some air while munching on a snack with his other hand!Delete
One of his greatest films, a masterful interrputation of a crazed hood on the loose. Along with ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES probably my two favorite Cagney films. I would think this would be a good film to introduce young folks to classic films. It's tough, cynical and violent. Fantastic piece, Richard!ReplyDelete
John, it sure would make a good introduction to classic film. If only the modern movies that try to be "tough, cynical, and violent" could do it this well more often. Scorsese can do it when inspired, but I just can't get behind the Tarantino school of crime and violence. He doesn't seem to know the difference between cynical and crude, a distinction that "White Heat" seems to grasp.Delete
I haven't seen a lot of Cagney's films, but thanks to TCM I think I have seen almost all of his greatest films, and "White Heat" surely tops my list. I have said before how much I like your descriptive writing style, but you really top yourself in being able to convey the forcefulness of Cagney in this role.ReplyDelete
He's so gifted and unlike any other actor that it's often hard to pin down precisely what his "oomph" quality is. I think you nailed it in detailing the physicality of his acting. I really enjoyed this post and thanks for including that clip of his prison breakdown scene. Reading how beautifully you described it made me want to see it again, and there it was! Thanks!
Ken, I'm sort of in the same boat as you with seeing Cagney films, though in the runup to the blogathon I've made an effort to watch some of the ones I've never seen. Thanks for the compliment about the descriptive writing. Cagney was such a colorful actor--and his character interpretations seem so thoroughly thought-out--that I basically just described what he did.Delete
Cagney DID have a special quality (or maybe a cluster of them) that's hard to put a name to, unlike some other actors who are special but in more identifiable ways. I became really aware of how physical Cagney's acting is only after reading up a bit on his love of dancing then noticing how much he used this skill in his acting. He writes that the first time he played a boxer his boxing coach couldn't believe he'd never fought professionally because his footwork was so refined and precise. In some ways his onscreen intensity reminds me of some of the actresses of the 30s like Davis, Stanwyck, and Hepburn. The characters they played always seemed so COMPLETE, they were always identifiable as both themselves and the character, and they always gave 100% of their effort to their acting no matter what they thought of the script, director, or rest of the cast.
This is one of the all time greats and you give us all reason to check it out again. Great analysis of Cagney's acting style and the portrayal of the psychosis angle. Wonderful post.ReplyDelete
Jon, thank you. I find that "White Heat" is one of those films you can revisit from time to time without fear of getting tired of it. Even if you know what's coming, it's so exciting that you can enjoy it all over again without it diminishing the memory of seeing it for the first time. That's rewatchability!Delete
So let's see, as organizer you got to choose first, right? I'd say this is the ultimate Cagney, though I'm with you and Kevin on it and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" being the best of the bunch. I'm hesitant to put one ahead of the other, though personally my preference probably comes down to the mood I'm in that day.ReplyDelete
Personally I like "Angels With Dirty Faces," a lot, and enjoyed your comparison of the big dining hall scene here with the final scene in that Cagney classic. The edge is here though since we get to see his body do everything it should when overcome by so much emotion. Nice info on O'Brien's reaction too, I'd noticed that before and been curious.
What an actor--and what a Blogathon. Thanks for hosting and thanks once more for allowing me to join so late.
Cliff, actually nobody expressed an interest in writing on either "White Heat" or "Yankee Doodle Dandy," a surprise to me because I thought they would be the first two to go. So I lucked out in being able to write on my favorite Cagney film and performance without pulling rank! Writing on the film did have its downside: writing about a film so special can be a daunting task. "Angels with Dirty Faces" is another good one, although I like Cagney in the film more than the film. It was the only other example I could think of in which Cagney has a mental breakdown, although I've always thought that Rocky Sullivan was faking it. And of course I agree that the breakdown in "White Heat" is not only real (for the character) but does give Cagney full scope to use his physical presence, whereas in "Angels" he's being restrained by guards. Glad you were able to participate in the blogathon and that you chose a film ("G-Men") that I felt needed to be covered.Delete
This piece is inspired. You perfectly capture the power of this film that was could have been "just another gangster movie," but Cagney gives a bold performance that is terrifying, not only in its intensity but in its realism.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Filmboy. Cagney and Walsh went all out to make "White Heat" more than just another gangster film, and did they succeed! Although Cagney was quite modest about the film's achievements, it's a classic whose reputation seems to have steadily grown since its release.Delete
R.D., This is a terrific take on “White Heat” as well as Cagney as an actor. About Cagney’s approach to acting you point out that he “relied on his instincts and above all preparation and hard work to put his characters across.” It seems the same instincts and hard work that served him so well as a boy – in surviving the streets of the lower east side, holding down multiple part-time jobs at a time, etc. - served him at least as well as an artist. I have to wonder if his statement that acting was simply a job that put “groceries on the table” was his modesty speaking. In his best work (like “White Heat,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy”), he seems positively exultant, even joyful (as well as brilliant). So much more than a "journeyman actor." Thank you for an eloquent, thought-provoking read. And thank you for hosting the Cagney Blogathon, a first-rate event for a mythic talent.ReplyDelete
Eve, thank you. I got the same impression about Cagney's modesty. He called "White Heat" a "good picture." I call it a great one. I suspect he indulged in understatement when he made that comment about acting being just a job. He said elsewhere that the best screen actors had an unidentifiable quality that set them apart, so he must have known he was one of that elite group. But he had no patience with actors who waited for inspiration to come to them or who tried to project their own qualities rather than the character's. He was a hard worker all his life and never a quitter, probably not awfully different from the go-getters he played in those early films, just less brash. The way he described his early days at Warners--the way studio bosses considered being a contract player one step up from indentured servitude--he had to be or he wouldn't have survived. As you mention, one thing you get from nearly all Cagney performances is his energetic enthusiasm, and I get this impression of the private Cagney too. In real life he seems to have had as well a thoughtful quietness that you seldom saw on screen.Delete
"A good picture in a number of ways." !! I'll say.ReplyDelete
Terrific review of this iconic movie. Thanks for providing the background info that lead to Cagney's decision to make it for Warner Brothers.
Silver Screenings, thank you. Cagney might have made the film in exchange for Warners paying off the losses of "The Time of Your Life," but that didn't stop him from giving himself over to the part 100% and trying to make it the best picture he could.Delete
First, Rich, thanks for hosting this amazing blogathon, the fun seems to never end.ReplyDelete
What a great essay. If not the best gangster performance by Cagney, one of the best. The mental explanation to his behavior didn't age, and, while in The Publiv Enemy the environment made he become a gangster, here we have a plethera of possibilities. Great, great film!
Le, greetings to you and I'm glad you enjoyed the blogathon. Thanks also to your vlog contribution, which was a real treat. Yes, "White Heat" seems to have a depth that simpler Cagney gangster pictures like "The Public Enemy" don't have, and Cody Jarrett seems a more complex personality than the gangsters Cagney played in the 30s.Delete
I have enjoyed this Cagney blogathon very much and White Heat is a masterpiece, as far as I am concerned. Thanks for the info on how Cagney prepped to play his mental breakdown scene in the prison when his character learns that Ma is dead.ReplyDelete
Jenni, thank you. So pleased you enjoyed the blogathon, and I sure can't disagree with you about "White Heat" being a masterpiece.Delete