Thursday, April 16, 2009

James Cagney: White Heat

James Cagney, who gave an excellent performance in Public Enemy, surpasses himself in the classic gangster film White Heat. I quickly forgot that this is really James Cagney and not Cody Jarrett, gangster. He brought a depth to the role that wasn't present in the earlier gangster film that I recently saw, Public Enemy. Cody Jarrett isn't just a sneering sociopath, but a psychologically crippled individual, as well as a very dangerous one.

The scene in prison dining area when he discovers that his mother is dead is the most powerful in the film, both in Cagney's performance and the staging. Cagney sees that a newcomer has arrived and is sitting at the same table, with about ten or more people in between. He asks the person next to him to pass a question about his mother down the table, and we see each man turn to his neighbor and track the progress of the question as it slowly reaches the new prisoner. We then watch it make its way back, and we sense it's bad news. The tension builds as the answer works its way closer and closer to Cody. We know when it reaches him, there will be an explosion. Cagney doesn't disappoint. He freezes, as if taking it in, as if deciphering it, and then slowly stands up and gives out a moan that can only be described as that of an animal in pain.

The supporting cast is excellent. A very young Edmund O'Brien played the undercover cop who goes into prison to make friends with Cody. Virginia Mayo, whom I remember as always playing the glamorous, sexy, seductive roles comes across with a very different portrayal as Cody Jarrett's wife who is forced to compete for his affections with his mother. In her first appearance in the film, she is seen sleeping and very obviously snoring, a not very sexy introduction. She is convincing as the trashy and brassy woman who just isn't quite the light of Jarrett's life.

Margaret Wycherly is superb as Cody's mother, the mother from hell. She's tough, ruthless, and smarter than her son. Her goal in life is to see him succeed, to make it to the "top of the world," regardless of what he does. It's her advice that keeps him as the head of the gang, and he'd be lost without her. Once she dies, his end is only a matter of time.

The ending is a memorable one, quite different than the endings of the two gangster films I had written about earlier. In Little Caesar, Edward G. Robinson lies dying behind a billboard and plaintively asks, "Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?" James Cagney in Public Enemy staggers out of a house after a gun battle, falls into the gutter, and mutters, "I ain't so tough." In contrast, at the end of White Heat, Cagney is on a catwalk at the top of what appears to be an oil storage tank which is blazing furiously. Cagney, wounded, stands up and shouts "Made it, Ma! Top of the World," as the tank explodes, still defiant in a scene from hell.

Overall Rating: very good, Cagney at his best with an excellent supporting cast.

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