November 1, 2010

Noir-vember: White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949)

Noir-vember is a month-long film challenge devised by oldfilmsflicker, who in addition to running one of the best film Tumblrs around, also blogs here. The premise is simple but daunting: watch every one of IMDb's Top-Rated Film Noir Titles, fifty in all. Luckily for me, I've seen several of these films already and won't be covering them during the month.
Here I've listed what I have seen versus what I haven't. Pretty much split down the middle. It's a shame because many of the top noirs are some of my favorite films (The Killers, Gun Crazy, Sunset Boulevard, Night of the Hunter), but if I have time at the end of the month, I'll write up something about my favorites because those are terrific, terrific films. Furthermore, there are many great films noir that aren't even on this list, the most grievous error probably being the lack of Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich's blistering nuclear hysteria parable wrapped in a private detective film. But I digress. 

Because of Netflix availability and my own fickle whims, films will appear generally out of order of the IMDb list. 

The first film up is #12, White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949).

Raoul Walsh was a wonderful journeyman director who, like his compatriots William Wellman and Howard Hawks, filmed just about every genre during Hollywood's Golden Age and helped defined the American style of movie-making. White Heat is arguably his greatest film, but it isn't, in my estimation, particularly noir-ish. What White Heat is, is a tried and true, genuine gritty gangster picture that lands somewhere between that genre's heyday in the 1930s and the rise of the no-nonsense police procedural that would captivate the country's attention in the 1950s through film and television shows like "Dragnet"

Academics and critics have been arguing about what constitutes a noir since two French guys decided there was such a thing as film noir (a claim some people still doubt). Believe me, consensus is few and far between when it comes to this genre that some claim isn't even a genre. The only thing I know for sure about film noir is that every film nerd loves it. Like dogs love bones, fat kids love cake, etc. It's cinephiliac catnip. Dark shadows, amoral characters, perverted psychology, Freudian symbols, post-WWII anxiety, gangsters, private dicks, femme fatales and some of the most gorgeously expressionistic black and white cinematography this side of Weimar Germany--what's not to love?

So, far be it from me to deem White Heat not "noir" enough, although I'm here to do just that, in what I hope will be a case study that justifies such a claim (though given the shaky history of defining film noir, even as I'm confident in my evidence, I'm equally wary to do so). 

The first claim against White Heat's noir status is Jimmy Cagney, the greatest gangster to ever grace the screen (sorry, Bogie). The film marked Cagney's return to his "home studio" of Warner Bros. after a foray into creating star vehicles with his own production company. After two successful pictures and a flop, Warners offered to distribute Cagney Production's pictures if he'd return "home" and restore to the studio some badly needed clout. And boy, did they have just the property to put Jimmy back on top. White Heat's Cody Jarrett is every bit the kind fast-talking, brutal spitfire of a gangster Cagney defined in Warner's pictures like The Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931) and Angels With Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz, 1938). Warner's publicity blared, "Pick up the pieces, folks! Jimmy's back in action again!"

Studio publicity provides all kinds of clues about what kind of film White Heat is and how the filmmakers capitalized on Cagney's star persona as the ultimate tough guy. In this poster, Cageney's posed in his famous pistol-whipping stance, but the placement above Virginia Mayo's credit and the smaller vingiette of Mayo (playing Cagney's vulgar wife) recalls the infamous grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy

The differences between Cagney's Cody Jarrett and Tom Powers of The Public Enemy or Rocky Sullivan in Angels With Dirty Faces are twofold: 1) the shift from gangsters of socio-economic circumstance to an emphasis on irredeemably bad psychopaths with psychological perversions, and 2) an increase in the violence and cruelty allowable on screen. Both changes are due to changes in social and filmic conventions. In the '30s, even pre-Code films were vulnerable to censorship (local, as opposed to the nationally unified censorship of the Hays Code). Warner Bros. gained a reputation of social realist gangster pictures which they were allowed to get away with because the bad guy always came from economically depressed circumstances and got it in the end, ostensibly serving as a positive deterrent for miscreant youth contemplating a life of crime. Of course, this didn't work at all because all anyone can remember of these picture is Cagney and Bogart being total badasses--who cares if they died. 

With every passing year, the Production Code seemed to lessen its vice grip on film censorship. Especially after the horrors of WWII, restrictions on the depictions of violence relaxed. But bad guys still had to be punished; White Heat features one of the most memorial demises in film history. Heck, you're probably quoting the line right now in your head. (If not, see here.) But we know next to nothing about Cody Jarrett; we're left to infer his character's history from Cagney's. Like other Cagney gangsters, Jarrett has a mother fixation. The story is loosely based on the exploits of Ma Barker, a woman who in real life was something of an imbecile, but in popular culture has achieved a Lady Macbeth-like level of conniving criminal genius. But Oedipal fixations are nothing new to the gangster picture; Cagney had them in The Public Enemy too. But whereas Tom Powers' main tragedy was economic, Jarrett's is a sickness in the blood. His father died in a mental hospital and he seems to have inherited his madness (and, erm, love for his mother/wife). Freudian fascination is nothing new to American cinema but increased alarmingly after in the postwar era, consequently becoming one of the chief thematic elements of film noir.

James Cagney's career criminal Cody Jarrett and Edmond O'Brien's undercover cop 
in the prison yard in White Heat

However, the "dark psychological underpinnings," as USC film critic and historian Drew Casper calls them in the DVD commentary, are not the exclusive providence of film noir. Most critics can agree that the deciding factor in noir or not-noir is the visual style. White Heat features exactly one sequence that resembles the dense and cross-hatched chiaroscuro that marks the best work of the genre. This sequence takes place inside a prison. Jarrett has confessed to a lesser crime to take the heat off the murders that occurred during the film's opening scene--a train robbery. There, an undercover Treasury man played by Edmond O'Brien befriends Jarrett and ingratiates himself into his inner circle. The pair, along with other men, plan a brazen jail break. 

A jail is naturally oppressive and claustrophobic by its very architecture: guard towers provide vantage points for canted angles, surveillance and paranoia are inscribed in the balance of power between inmates and guards, the opportunity for angular dissection of the frame is everywhere--bars, gates and bisecting lines galore!

However, I would argue that Walsh does not linger on stylistic flourishes and his camera remains steady for the most part, resisting expressionistic camera moves and odd angles. Walsh is a director focused on action and the jail break sequence has all the punch and brio as any classic gangster picture. The picture is linear and neatly divided into segments. It's bookended by two heists, one successful and one not. Jarrett and the gang move from rural scenes (where they're in hiding), to jail, to the urban chemical plant for the final showdown.

But unlike classic gangster pictures, White Heat spends an inordinate amount of time as a police procedural, chronicling in exacting detail the methods of the T-Men tasked to bringing down Jarrett. The procedural plodding of the T-Men scenes juxtaposed with Cagney's signature staccato energy lends the picture its thematic tension. One the one hand, O'Brien and his partner (played by John Archer), are typically faceless, plain vanilla bureaucrats. They wear suits, speak in definitive, no-nonsense declaratives: singular crime fighters committed to bringing down the bad guys by the book. Visually, the film takes a docu-realist approach to telling the story of investigation, documentation and apprehension of criminals. 

One the other hand, it's clear the film imbues the Treasury Department with a measure of cool tech cred that tries to make up for its otherwise boring agents. Walsh fills his picture with a host of insert shots that detail the (at the time) cutting-edge devices employed against Jarrett. The gangsters, on the other hand, are totally old school. Jarrett uses his gun and his mitts. His strategy cribs a page from the Trojan's, with an oil truck acting like a horse, to gain entry into the chemical plant. The cops, however, deploy multiple squad cars rigged with radar to triangulate the truck's position. They communicate with each other via gigantic short wave radios, technology clearly indebted to postwar military technology. 

Ultimately, though, both cops and robbers have to duke it out in an old fashioned fire fight. Jarrett, our twisted hero, is the last man standing until he isn't. Importantly, Cagney's "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" isn't the final line of the film. That honor goes to the T-Men Archer and O'Brien: 

Philip Evans: Cody Jarrett... 
Hank Fallon: He finally got to the top of the world... and it blew right up in his face. 

Thus marked the nail in the coffin in the classic gangster cycle. White Heat is a gangster picture with noir elements, although its prison scenes pale in comparison to Jules Dassin's masterful prison noir Brute Force (1947), number 46 on IMDb's list. Walsh is a consummate action director and having worked with Cagney previously, got one of the actor's best performances. The film is an interesting case study--closing out the war-ravaged '40s and on the brink of a new era where law enforcement takes precedence over the glamorization of criminality--in changing values in the gangster film. Other films noir, if they feature a cop at all, focus on a rogue agent (more in the vein of the private detective) against organized crime. White Heat presents the case of an individual, Cody Jarrett, the last hold-out of a dying breed of loner gangster, against the encroaching technology of a mass organized governmental force. The film is something of an elegy for the classic '30s gangster who simply cannot function in light of postwar cultural and criminal development. 


  1. this film is SO GOOD. Cagney's amazing in it. so far I've watched OUT OF THE PAST and RIFIFI. tonight I'm watching THE KILLERS. very exciting!

  2. Those are all great ones. The Killers is one of my absolute favorites.

  3. dude this film looks really awesome. I need to definitely watch this. I love old classics and the cinema styles they employ. are there any other films of this variety which you could suggest? :P

  4. IA--

    Yeah, man. Depends on what you're looking for. If you want to get into Cagney, check out a couple of his gangster classics like THE PUBLIC ENEMY, THE ROARING TWENTIES, and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES.

    If you're interested in the tech aspects, there's some of the same in KISS ME DEADLY.

    Another great prison movie is BRUTE FORCE.

    Thanks for commenting! I dig your site.

  5. I've just bought a 16mm print of this film