Monday, January 12, 2009

Classic Film Commentary: White Heat

Not long ago, Cody Jarrett robbed a train, and was responsible for the death of four railway men--two of whom he personally killed in cold blood-- but right now, none of that matters; his mom needs help with dinner. In White Heat, James Cagney shows the world a new kind of gangster: an epileptic, capable of the most ruthless things and is every bit as extreme as his behavior suggests; but at the end of the day, he’s also just a guy who loves his mother.
Plagued with epileptic seizures, Cody always keeps his mother by his side. When seizures strike, she cares for him in private, holding him, comforting him and rubbing his head. But, it’s when he sits in her lap that Cody’s Oedipal complex really emerges. It’s his mother alone, whom he permits to see him suffering and vulnerable. Not even his wife is granted access at such times. In fact, his wife often competes with his mother for his attention. Cody doesn’t treat her as well as he should, but that only helps to strengthen his image as a tough man. His Ma is another matter. She functions as his mentor and advisor, and encourages her son never to let anyone but her see him in a diminished state. After one such attack, Cody re-emerges from his room and barks: "What're ya all gapin' at?" All his life, his Ma preached to him about making his mark on the world. This attitude and goal is captured in her mantra to him: “Top of the world, son.” Ma always looks out for him, dotes on him and keeps him out of trouble. For instance, she risks everyone’s safety to go to the market to get his “favorite” fruit: strawberries. On her way home, she realizes she is being tailed, so she evades the Feds to the best of her ability. Also, when Cody and his crew were preparing to leave their hideout after a train robbery, it’s Ma, who reminds Cody that Zuckie, an injured gang member might talk, if left behind. Cody has him shot. Cody’s mother is his lifeline, his protection. So, when she dies, everything changes.
While serving a short jail sentence, arranged with the help of a concocted alibi to avoid charges for the more serious crime he actually committed, Cody learns of his mother’s death. Hundreds of prisoners file into the prison mess hall (in a long shot from an upper tier high above where armed guards patrol the perimeter) - it's a prelude to one of the best scenes in the picture. After they reach their seats, a whistle is blown to signal them to sit. Prisoners are forbidden to speak to each other, although Pardo whispers "tonight" to Cody - the expected time for their planned breakout. One of the new prisoners seated at the end of Cody's table is Nat Lefeld "from the coast mob." Cody relays a message to him from inmate to inmate: "Ask him how my mother is." We watch the message relayed down the row and back, with the camera moving as if it were the message itself. Cody finally gets the news from Reilly, a prisoner seated next to him. It’s as if a fuse had been lit and we’ve traveled with it as it spent its way to the dynamite. When Cody gets the word, he explodes with rage. The guards soon apprehend him and take him away. From this point on, everything changes.
Fueled by anger and a desire for revenge, Cody breaks out of prison. His first order of business is: taking out the trash. He returns home, reunites with his wife (the actual killer of his mother). He then kills Big Ed putting “two in his back” just as his wife has told him Big Ed did to his mother. Cody is done talking. Just as the painful “white heat” of his seizures temporarily blinds and weakens him, so does his rage over his mother’s death. But without her, he also loses his bearings and his judgment. He is unable to see that he has a cop in his crew. He makes the fateful decision not to shoot Fallon when he has the chance, allowing Fallon eventually to deliver the fatal shots that end his life.
White Heat presents Cody’s downfall as a direct consequence of his world becoming destabilized and collapsing around him. In his final seconds, as he stands upon a giant refinery storage tank, Cody looks skyward and triumphantly calls out to his mom, the same mantra repeated to him all his life: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” Cody then dies as he lived: in extreme defiance. He ignites and dies in the tremendous ‘white heat’ of a refinery explosion -- a mushroom cloud, apocalyptic blast that shakes the earth. White Heat was, appropriately, one of the last of Warner Bros’ gritty crime film era offerings, and it made a lasting impression. Afterwards, gangsters were rarely dramatized as one-dimensional, ruthless killers. Cagney’s portrayal of Cody Jarrett paves the way for more complicated character development of anti-heroes. In this way, White Heat helped to put gangster pictures back on “top of the world.”

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