Saturday, May 03, 2008

White Heat

Still catching up with the Hollywood classics. White Heat was also my introduction to James Cagney, and boy, is he something! Many other stars of that era had screen presence as powerful as his but I don't think anybody had an energy like Cagney and this was a from a guy who was nearing fifty when he made it. He is always jumping around, looking borderline funny, always shoving people, shooting indiscriminately and delivering his dialogues in his non-stop crackerjack style. It is just impossible to take your eyes off him whenever he is in the scene and he is in every scene throughout the film.

The story is build around pretty standard gangster formula. The only difference is that the gangster here is shown as a total neurotic, prone to epileptic seizures and as a result probably a total psychopath. Even more bizarre twist is his mother who is a bit screwed up in her head as well. Scenes between mother and son border on camp hilarity but I think it eschews ridiculousness mostly because both actors are so great and convincing. This also makes sense plotwise by hinting that his neurosis and mental troubles may be a result of his relationship with his mother. And then there is also the fact that his father died in a mental institution. I was also reminded of Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas who seemed to copying Cagney. He has an eccentric mom in the movie too (played by Scorsese's real life mom), though not at all a psychotic.

I am not very familiar with the classic gangster movies, most of them made by warner bros in the 30s but from little I have read about them, those movies did have social and political subtext beneath their violence. Gangster was presented as a sort of anti-authoritarian figure, a rebel basically, who took laws into his own hands because they were unjust. He followed his own code of honour and was loyal to his friends and partners. Probably by the time Walsh made White Heat these idioms had already worn off as sentimental cliches. Personally I always have a soft corner for movies which present outlaws as a romantic rebels but I realize that's a sentimental way of looking at things. White Heat is praiseworthy in this respect because it is so unsentimental and realistic in its portrayal of violence and it is incredibly violent specially for its time. I couldn't believe they could show so many cold blooded killings then.

In short it is just an amazing film. James Cagney is a force unto himself, one of a kind. Must see classic!


Jabberwock said...

James Cagney is a force unto himself, one of a kind

Absolutely, and how I envy you for not having experienced his other films yet! He was even older in Love Me or Leave Me and One, Two, Three but just as full of vitality. And then of course there are the earlier classics like Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties and Public Enemy, as well as his song-and-dance films (though I haven't seen Yankee Doodle Dandy, for which he won the best actor Oscar). He even infused spirit into an awkward Hollywood version of A Midsummer Night's Dream - a film that was made intolerable for me because of Mickey Rooney's loud and shrill performance as Puck.

Puccinio said...

''White Heat'' is seen by many commentators as kind of an epilogue to the gangster cycle of the Depression. Raoul Walsh's ''The Roaring Twenties'' was the end-of-the-line as is apparent in it's nostalgia for Prohibition and realization of the loss of the gangster's one chance at the American Dream.

The gangster cycle began with ''The Public Enemy'' and ''Little Caesar'', then you had ''Scarface'' by Howard Hawks and many other films of minor and major interest. Like ''Dead End'' by William Wyler of all people. Ending with ''The Roaring Twenties'' which is a lookback to the Prohibition of the 20's.

There's also films like ''Angels With Dirty Faces'' which has a reputation as classic but which I dislike for it's pseudo-religious conservatism. I much prefer the end of ''Roaring Twenties'' with it's Catholic imagery, since it was made by an authentic Catholic like Walsh.

As for Cagney, an actor of great versatility...see ''Picture Snatcher'' made in 1933, ''Footlight Parade'', ''The Strawberry Blonde''(also by Raoul Walsh his favourite director), ''Love Me or Leave Me'' and then his last starring role in Billy Wilder's cynical Cold War satire ''One, Two, Three'' where he plays a businessman...a thoroughly corrupt Coca-Cola exec in Berlin. Compared to him, his role in ''White Heat'' is practically angelic.

Alok said...

Thanks Jai & Puccinio for adding to my ever-growing list! I haven't seen a lot of these classics from the 30s - it is still an unexlored decade for me... I have actually seen just a few comedies. The Roaring Twenties and Scarface are both on the top of my list now.

Puccinio said...

The 30's is along with the 50's my favourite decade of American Cinema. Not that the 40's were bad or less better but simply you have this sense of exuberance, of life that you don't get elsewhere. The 50's is the reverse, the happier the surface, the bleaker the core. It's a very pessimistic decade but produced many interesting films.

And then the films of the 30's were quite progressive as well. Even a reactionary like Capra owing to his populism became a quasi-leftist in that period.

Jabberwock said...

Yes, I'd probably say 30s and 50s too. The 40s were interesting for other reasons, including the birth of a darker, more pessimistic style that may have been rooted in the war experiences (many directors and other crew served in the armed forces for a time), but it still feels like a somehow unresolved, "bridging" decade. Also, I don't know the numbers, but I have a feeling there were fewer Hollywood films made in the 1940s than in the 30s and 50s.