DVD Review Of White Heat
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/24/12


  Raoul Walsh’s 1949 black and white gangster film, White Heat, is often mislabeled a film noir, but it’s clearly nothing of the kind. Films noir have ambiguous anti-heroes and the things that they engage in is ethically shady, not out and out evil. This certainly does not describe Walsh’s film, featuring Jimmy Cagney as Arthur ‘Cody’ Jarrett, a thinly disguised Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker, the notorious gangster from the 1930s. Jarrett has little shading; he’s pure evil, with a sadistic streak, and all the things he is involved in are likewise pure evil. He’s a murderer and psychopath, but he’s not psychotic, as many bad critics claim. The two terms are not synonyms. A psychopath is someone who is amoral and/or gets pleasure from violence and mayhem. A psychotic is merely someone detached from reality. Jarrett is clearly not psychotic.

  The film opens with a daring train robbery by Jarrett and his gang, which includes a potential rival, the craven Big Ed (Steve Cochran). During the $300,000 heist, 4 railroad employees are killed and one of Jarrett’s men is scalded by steam from the train. Back at the hideout he is ordered killed, by Jarrett, but left to die by the appointed killer. At the hideout we also meet the two women in Jarrett’s life- Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly), who is clearly based on Ma Barker, and Jarrett’s wide, Verna (Virginia Mayo), a slutty, backstabbing bitch, who is having an affair with Big Ed. In the hideout it is also revealed that Jarrett suffers from debilitating headaches, and that his Ma is pulling his strings by infantilizing him, goading him on with a need to get to ‘the top of the world.’ It is also revealed that Pa Jarrett was insane, and died while institutionalized.

  The film also spends a good deal of time showing off the high tech process that Feds use to nab the bad guys. Chief among Jarrett’s pursuers is Treasury agent Philip Evans (John Archer), who is shot by Jarrett at the hotel he is staying at, after Archer has tracked Ma Jarrett’s car there. Having shot Evans, Jarrett, Ma, and Verna hide out in a drive-in movie theater, where Jarrett tells them he has set himself up to take the fall for a lesser crime in Illinois that an associate committed. This will help him evade the Federal charges, including murder, since the two crimes were convicted at about the same time, and confessing to the lesser charge will help him dodge the murder rap. He gets 1-3 years in an Illinois State Pen. Evans, though, realizes this, and allows Jarrett to take the lesser rap, so that he can plant a G-Man, Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) undercover, to cozy up to Jarrett, so the Feds can learn who the Big Man who launders Jarrett’s booty is. Fallon assumes the name Vic Pardo. Meanwhile, Big Ed schemes to take over the gang, by having an associate knock Jarrett off in an industrial accident. But it’s thwarted by Fallon, who uses it to insinuate himself into Jarrett’s confidence. Right after the accident, Ma Jarrett visits Jarrett, and informs him of Big Ed’s and Verna’s affair, and vows to get vengeance for him. She is then killed by Verna, shot in the back. This prompts Jarrett to lose it all in the mess hall, and be sent to the infirmary, thus ruining an escape plan that Fallon and Jarrett had engineered.

  But, it’s all part of a plan Jarrett has. With the aid of a cohort, he takes the prison shrink, and some guards, prisoner, sends for other cohorts of his, including Fallon and Big Ed’s handy man. The lot of them sneak out of prison in the shrink’s car. Jarrett kills Big Ed’s accomplice by tossing him into the car’s trunk and then shooting it up. Hearing of the escape, Big Ed plots to lure Jarrett into a trap, to kill him, but Verna fears her husband as unstoppable. She tries to escape, but is stopped by Jarrett. She then switches allegiances, and helps Jarrett ace Big Ed. Holed up with a gasoline truck the gang bought, they plot a robbery of an oil refinery. This is when Jarrett’s launderer, a man known only as The Trader (Fred Clark), the fence he was to track down, arrives. The gang then plans to rob the oil refinery with one of The Trader’s men, and ex-con named Bo Creel (Ian McDonald) as driver. Fallon had previously avoided being spotted by Creel in prison, but this time is not so lucky. Creel fingers Fallon, and Jarrett explodes with rage over the betrayal. Fallon is subdued and taken hostage. Evans, having been tipped off by Fallon, has had his men surround the refinery. Jarrett’s men are picked off one by one as he tries to escape. Fallon, meanwhile, has gotten free during a tear gas assault. Jarrett alone remains, and heads to the top of a globular refinery tank. Knowing he is doomed, after having been shot by Fallon, he shoots open a pipe and screams, ‘Made it, Ma! Top of the world!’ as the tank explodes.

  The Warner Brothers DVD is a good package. The film’s visual quality is quite good, and the 113 minute film is seen in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The DVD is part of a 6 disk Warner Brothers Gangsters Collection. The extra features are top notch, for the DVD tries to present the film as it would have been shown in theaters, in a section called Warner Night At The Movies. Hosted by film critic Leonard Maltin, the segment features cartoons, newsreels, trailers and short subject films from the same year as the film in the DVD- this one being 1949. There are trailers- including one for the Gary Cooper film of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a newsreel, a comedy short called So You Think You’re Not Guilty, part of the Joe McDoakes shorts, starring George O’Hanlon, who later went on to voice the cartoon character of George Jetson, and Phyllis Coates, who played Lois Lane on the first season of the old Adventures Of Superman television series. Frankly, Coates looks great, and she’s always been the sexiest Lois Lane ever (forget Teri Hatcher!). There is also a Bugs Bunny cartoon, Homeless Hare. The featurette on the film is the best extra, called White Heat: Top Of The World. Assorted film experts, including director Martin Scorsese, reminisce on the film and its impact. There is also the original theatrical trailer for White Heat. The film commentary features film historian Drew Casper. It’s a middle of the road commentary. Too often, though, Casper is more intent on stuffing information down the viewers’ throats rather than commenting on why or why not a scene works well, and there are a number of noticeable gaps in the commentary. The best commentaries are scene specific for pivotal moments, and add the filler in the down times. This commentary has good information on the production and history of the film, but little on the qualities that makes the film endure. One good point he makes, though, is in detailing how this film shows Jarrett as the little man gangster battling the big machinery of the government, a nice inversion of the Mr. Smith Goes To Washington ideal, as well as being a break from the social milieu as crime nursery motif of the 1930s and into the Freudian psychobabble that would dominate character motivations in Hollywood for the next few decades.

  The film’s technical aspects are solid, such as Max Steiner’s scoring and Sidney Hickox’s camera work, which does not rely on close-ups, rather emphasizing the greater picture; but neither is the compelling feature that one finds in the best films noir; another reason this film fails that claim. The screenplay, by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, from a tale by Virginia Kellogg, is good, but not great. Like many of the same era thrillers by Alfred Hitchcock it is larded with too much Freudianism and not enough realism (note how Fallon assumes the role of Jarrett’s confessor and benefactor after he learns Ma Jarrett is dead). Still, given that it was coming out at a time when the 1930s gangster film era was fading, the genre had to go somewhere. Also, the film, while it does a good job in setting Fallon up as the mole, meanders too much. The whole Big Ed-Verna romance is overdone because it’s obvious that Big Ed has no chance against Jarrett, and the whole Ma-Jarrett relationship, like that, a decade later, in Psycho, is just a bit too forced. In fact, it gets to the point that Ma, not Verna, can be seen as the femme fatale in Jarrett’s life that leads him to doom (even as she is dead), one of the few points one can argue in favor of White Heat being a film noir. The best part of the film is the acting. Wycherly, as Ma, is very good, and Edmond O’Brien shows why he was an Oscar caliber actor in a very good portrayal of Fallon/Pardo. But, as usual in his films, Cagney not only is brilliant, but he dominates the screen. It’s interesting to note that the 1950s saw the rise of the Method Acting style, yet almost all of the discernible physical inflections of that style were present in Cagney’s role here, as well as in earlier roles. In fact, I would argue that Cagney was not only the most influential actor in American film history (for look how much of Method Madness stole from him), but also the most important and nonpareil (if not perhaps the best) for look how many imitators Brando and De Niro have had, but who can do Cagney without falling lamely short? This is because Cagney is not aiming for realism in his performances, but feelism- he aims to make the viewer feel things, not be uplifted.

  White Heat is not a great piece of cinema, but it’s damned good. It’s a bit too reliant upon the formulae of gangster films to break too much new ground, but it is crisp, taut, and there are only a few moments that are lulls. There is no higher ideal being trumpeted, but what little music it plays it plays well, as a great genre piece of cinema. Yet, oddly, unlike Cagney’s earlier gangster classic, The Public Enemy, this film, while more realistic, in terms of its science and the politics of crime, is less realistic, in terms of its characters’ motivations and development. Still, it’s a treat to watch, and far above what passes for action or thriller fare today. In terms of being able to pull off a tough guy role, yet still move a viewer, Cagney was and is is still king!


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on No Ripcord website.]


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