White Heat (1949)

Directed by Raoul Walsh

White Heat is a 1949 film noir starring James Cagney, Virginia Mayo and Edmond O’Brien and featuring Margaret Wycherly and Steve Cochran.Directed by Raoul Walsh from an Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts screenplay, it is based on a story by Virginia Kellogg. Considered one of the classic gangster films, this film was added to theNational Film Registry in 2003 as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress.

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Casting

James Cagney, who had worked with  director  Raoul Walsh in  The Roaring Twenties  (which also starred Humphrey Bogart)  and  The Strawberry Blonde,  played Cody. It had been nine years since Cagney had played a gangster. Out of all gangsters that Cagney played in his career, Cody Jarrett can be considered his most psychotic. It was Cagney himself who had the idea of making Cody psychotic. Cagney attributed his performance to his father’s alcoholic rages, which he had witnessed as a child, as well as someone that he had seen on a visit to a mental hospital. Virginia Mayo  played his wife Verna Jarrett . Edmond O’Brien was cast as Hank Fallon, an undercover agent who is planted in the prison where Cody is held. English character actress  Margaret Wycherly  played Cody’s mother. US Treasury investigator Philip Evans was played by  John Archer.

Steve Cochran was cast as “Big Ed” Somers, Cody’s ambitious right-hand man who takes over the gang and pays Roy Parker, played by Paul Guilfoyle. Ford Rainey made his film debut as Zuckie Hommel, one of Cody’s gang members. Wally Cassell,  Fred Clark,  Ian MacDonald,  Robert Osterloh and  G. Pat Collins  were cast in supporting roles.

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Filming 

White Heat was filmed between May 5 and mid-June 1949  Filming locations included the Southern Pacific railroad tunnel in the Santa Susana Mountains near Chatsworth, California, and the Shell Oil plant at 198th Street and Figueroa in Torrance, California, where the final climactic shootout was filmed. The drive-in theater that Cody, Verna and Ma duck into is the now-demolished San Val Drive-In at 2720 Winona Avenue in Burbank, California—the second drive-in theater to open in California, after the “Drive-In Theatre” on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. The marquee at the San Val lists Warner Bros.’ South of St. Louis andUnited ArtistsSiren of Atlantis, however, seen on the screen, are action scenes from Warner Bros.’ Task Force, which Ma refers to by name in the film. All three films were released in September 1949, the same time as White Heat.

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The scene where Cody sits on his mother’s lap was Cagney’s idea. He told Walsh: “Let’s see if we can get away with this”, to which Walsh agreed. However, in his 1974 autobiography “Each Man in His Time”, Walsh took credit for the idea and said the scene worked because Cagney and Margaret Wycherly made it so convincing.

In a later interview, Mayo admitted she was frightened by Cagney because he was so realistic as Cody.

The telephone game scene in the prison dining room was also an idea by Cagney and wasn’t in the script. Walsh didn’t tell the rest of the cast what was about to happen, so Cagney’s outburst caught them by surprise. In fact, Walsh himself didn’t know what Cagney had planned; the scene as written wasn’t working, and Cagney had an idea. He told Walsh to put the two biggest extras playing cons in the mess-hall next to him on the bench (he used their shoulders to boost himself onto the table) and to keep the cameras rolling no matter what.

When Cody gets the news of his mother’s death, Cagney plays his first reaction merely looking down, building into the emotional explosion. Years later he explained to Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin, “That first agony is private. If I’d looked up right away and started bellowing, it would have been stock company, 1912.”

Executive producer Jack L. Warner believed that the scene in which Cody goes berserk in the mess hall after learning of the death of his mother would be too expensive to film and asked Walsh to film it in a chapel instead. Walsh, however, realized the dramatic potential of the scene and assuaged Warner’s budgetary concerns by shooting it in three hours.

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O’Brien was in awe of Cagney, having found out how generous and gentle he could be. In a close-up the two were playing together, O’Brien felt Cagney standing with increasing pressure on the top of O’Brien’s right foot, forcing the younger actor to move in that direction. O’Brien realized if he had not done so, he would have been out of frame and Cagney would have had the scene to himself. When the cameras were rolling, Cagney would look like “an angry tiger,” but as soon as Raoul Walsh yelled cut, the star would quietly go up to O’Brien with a poem he had written and ask him in a whisper, “Would you mind telling me what you think of this?” When it came time to return to work, Cagney would plead, “Please, don’t tell anyone about it.”

Although Cagney found this to be a good picture on a number of levels, in his 1985 autobiography, Cagney called the film “another cheapjack job” because of its limited shooting schedule and the studio’s decision to “put everybody in it they could get for six bits.” Cagney was particularly irritated by the fact that he pressed them to cast his old friend Frank McHugh in the small role of Tommy in order to bring a touch of humour and lightness to the otherwise heavy piece. According to the star, Warners repeatedly agreed to do it, putting Cagney off until the first day of shooting when he was told McHugh wasn’t available. Cagney found out later McHugh had never even been asked.

At the time of filming, special effects were not yet using squibs (tiny explosives that simulate the effects of bullets). The producers employed skilled marksmen who used low-velocity bullets to break windows or show bullets hitting near the characters. In the factory scene, Cagney was missed by mere inches.

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Reception

Critical reaction to the film was positive, and today it is considered a classic. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it “the acme of the gangster-prison film” and praised its “thermal intensity”. Tim Dirks on the website Filmsite.org writes that the film may have also inspired many other successful films:

This classic film anticipated the heist films of the early ’50s (for example John Huston‘s 1950 The Asphalt Jungle and Stanley Kubrick‘s 1956 The Killing), accentuated the semi-documentary style of films of the period (the 1948 The Naked City), and contained film-noirish elements, including the shady black-and-white cinematography, the femme fatale character, and the twisted psyche of the criminal gangster.

— Tim Dirks

White Heat was listed in Time magazine‘s top 100 films of all time. Based upon both contemporary and more recent film reviews, the film has a 100% “fresh” rating on film review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.

A classic drama and a classic psychological study

25 January 2004 | by nickjg (London, England) – See all my reviews

Cagney’s ability to shock is constant and each new gangster he creates shows a new facet of the psychopathic mind. White heat is the perfect antidote to the earlier movies- the structure where good triumphs in the last reel is still there but the killer, out of control is far less romanticised- if only current directors could develop this message. Cody Jarrett is the product of an over protective mother and thug father in the classic pattern. His whole view of the world is simplistic without subtlety or shade. Like all people of his type his self-confidence betrays him because he sees other people as stereotypes and while he has insight into the sorts of people who form his support network, he, very unwisely, dismisses the intelligence of the opposition. Like all gangsters, he has very little grasp of the outside world- throughout the film he is trapped in boxes, just like the man he kills in the boot of his car. Cagney’s portrayal is his greatest role- his avoidance of pathos and his refusal to bend emotionally mean that we are never invited to pity him- wherever there seems to be a point of access for the audience he delivers the lines with a flatness which denies us sympathy. His maudlin obsession with his mother invites us to loathe his infantile mental paralysis.

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Not enough comments praise the real co-star: Margaret Wycherley. She is a sinister mother who can handle the police and the gang and Cody’s wife. Her world-weary cynicism, her obsession with her son delivered in the same dead-pan style is such a total antithesis to the usual hollywood ‘caring parent’ model that she raises the character to the level of an Empress Livia or an Agrippina. The final scene works on multiple levels- the good-guy cannot easily destroy the villain- does the world blow up in Cody’s face or are we being told that the Jarretts of the world will dominate until they bring the universe to destruction? A film which still demands analysis and does more to reveal the nature of criminal amorality than anything Tarrantino or Scorsese could produce- The latter types of director are too caught up in the ‘romance’ of the villainous life- they need to develop Raoul Walsh’s objectivity and Cagney’s penetration. It is Cagney’s unequivocal hatred of the character he’s portraying and the personal honesty which allows him to objectify both the character he is playing and himself as an actor that makes the whole thing work. The crude method actors we’re stuck with today could learn a lot from his Cody Jarrett!

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