White Heat (1949), James Cagney’s last gangster film for Warner Brothers, was the choice of Clint Eastwood’s pick for a film deserving of a second look when asked to write about one for the Locarno Film Festival project, Serious Pleasures published in Europe. The project’s editor, Bill Krohn, is a friend of mine who granted me several of the titles to write about.The way it worked was a known director would pick a favorite film worthy of rediscovery, write about why, and then I’d research and write about the film’s backstory. Previous examples posted include The Sand Pebbles, Point Blank, The Hill, One-Eyed Jacks, etc. I was overjoyed to write about White Heat while still researching Lee Marvin Point Blank.
Eastwood’s thoughts on White Heat are below in italics, followed by my detailed essay on the film’s production. The images are from several sources since I’ve been a lifelong Cagney fan and have numerous books on the subject.
THE LAST GANGSTER
In the first scene, a man was disfigured by the burning steam of a train engine. In the last scene, the protagonist fired into a gas tank and detonated an apocalypse. In between, you were treated to countless explosions of violence as gangster Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) went on a rampage. You have never seen such savage lawlessness on screen before; You have never imagined a more vicious American family than Jarrett’s gang. White Heat hits you like a torpedo!
Raoul Walsh had a lot do with the film’s impact. As a story-teller he was only interested in bigger-than-life characters; good or bad, they had to be exceptional or excessive. Now wonder he found White Heat’s outlaw inspiring. Cody Jarrett was the last gangster, possibly the final incarnation of Public Enemy. He was not the corrupt business type in vogue in the late forties noir, but a tragic figure afflicted with epileptic fits and an Oedipus complex. Walsh’s other good fortune was to be reunited with Cagney, whom he called the best actor he ever worked with. After Bogart (High Sierra), Cagney was one of the rare stars he was able to kill at the end of the movie. When I saw this one in an Oakland theatre, I was about 20 and already a big Cagney fan.
There was no moral standard in White Heat. The cops remained anonymous, mere instruments of Jarrett’s fate. Compassion didn’t pay either: The gang started unravelling when a wounded accomplice was spared by his appointed executioner. Actually, Jarrett was betrayed by everybody, his wife, his second in command, and especially the undercover agent who befriended him. Everyone but his mother. By contrast, the gangster retained an odd integrity throughout. His one fatal weakness was a neurotic attachment to Ma. Somehow this monster overshadowed all those who surrounded him and you found yourself more interested in his madness than in his punishment.
In spite of the dark overtones, Walsh never lost his sense of humor. His fine touches are everywhere: He had Cagney whimper at Ma’s knees during one of his fits, brutally kick Virginia Mayo off a chair, casually shoot a man through a car trunk while munching on a piece of chicken. Later, you saw Jarrett communicating with his dearly beloved beyond the grave, and ultimately confiding: “All I ever had was Ma.” When Jarrett learned the truth about his undercover “friend,” he bursts out laughing. He was like a gambler so driven by self-destruction that nothing mattered anymore.
Walsh’s pace was relentless. I had never experienced anything like that before. The most unsettling was that the tone would change suddenly and the black humor veer into grandiose drama. Watch the scene where Jarrett is told of Ma’s death and, like a wounded animal, runs amok across the prison dining-hall until they strap him into a straitjacket. The explosion of rage and despair, expertly choreographed by Walsh and Cagney in a few long takes, is still one of the most powerful scenes in American cinema. So is the end the journey when Cagney yells from the top of the butane tank: “I’m on top of the world, Ma!” before disappearing into a fireball.
As the screen credit on White Heat states, the original story was by Virginia Kellogg, a former L.A. journalist who had fashioned a sketchy treatment for a gangster yarn inspired by the Denver mint robbery of 1922. Screenwriters Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff, newly contracted to Warner Bros., but partnered since World War II, wrote the screenplay and fleshed out the fictional plot and characters.
After the war, darker characters began appearing in American film with new stars (Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark) to play them, and established stars like Clark Gable and Tyrone Power began playing darker versions of their previous screen personas. Ironically, James Cagney had gone out of his way after the war to break free of his Warner Bros. contract and tough guy image to make independent films with warmth and charm, which failed miserably. For financial reasons, he had to return to Warners in defeat to play a character that would top all previous examples of darkness and evil.
Jack Warner, who had dubbed Cagney “The Professional Againster” because of their constant bickering, conceded the boxoffice prospects when Goff and Roberts lobbied him to bring in Cagney to play Cody Jarrett and entered into negotiations with Cagney’s business partner, his brother Bill. Bill Cagney struck a deal which required Warners to pay off the heavy debt Cagney Brothers Productions had incurred in independent projects, and James Cagney returned to the studio he had once vowed he would never work for again.
The only bright spot was the prospect of working with some of the contract players who had become lifelong friends. The studio promised to give a role to one of Cagney’s closest friends, character actor, Frank McHugh. According to Cagney “I asked for him and Warners ‘yessed’ me and ‘yessed’ me until the first day of shooting, when they told me they just couldn’t get Frank. I found out later Frank had never been asked…It was a typical example of sacrificing quality for time and money.”
When it came to saving time and money, the studio had the perfect man for the job. Raoul Walsh, who had made two masterpieces for Warners with Cagney [The Roaring Twenties & The Strawberry Blonde] had a well-deserved reputation for driving actors hard, shooting fast and denying retakes, partly for budgetary reasons but mostly because he didn’t want the actors to lose their freshness and spontaneity. Like the hero of the prewar Cagney-Walsh collaboration The Roaring Twenties, and many other heroes of Walsh films, Cody Jarrett is doomed by fate and betrayed by a friend, but these themes were turned on their head in White Heat, where Edmond O’Brien’s character betrays Jarrett out of necessity, and Jarrett’s death is a comfort to the viewer instead of a tragedy.
Even though White Heat was not the first gangster film to venture out of the urban jungle — Walsh’s High Sierra had done so previously — in this respect the film set a precedent for Cagney. With White Heat he not only left the mean streets of New York for the mountains of California, but pulled his heists as if he were in the Old West by robbing trains and company payrolls (Goff and Roberts working title was “The Last Outlaw”). Cagney also looked different in White Heat; instead of losing weight before the start of production as he had for previous roles, the actor, now middle-aged, allowed himself to look genuinely paunchy onscreen for the first time. As Raoul Walsh said later of his cast, “Virginia Mayo was a beautiful girl. Cagney was a nice guy, but he ate too much.”
An historical bone of contention concerning White Heat has been whose idea it was to make Jarrett a mother-fixated psychopath. Both Cagney and Walsh have stated publicly that the idea was theirs, but the first draft of Goff and Roberts’ script had already borrowed heavily from the story of Ma Barker by rolling all of her sons’ traits into Cody Jarrett.
Other ideas can be attributed to Cagney, who was fond of “sprinkling the goodies along the way” — adding touches like the scene where Jarrett sits on his mother’s lap, which Walsh encouraged him to do when the actor wondered if audiences would accept it. In another scene Virginia Mayo, who played Jarrett’s slutty wife, recalls, “Jimmy said, ‘If I kick the chair out from under you, will you fall back on the bed and not hurt yourself?’ I said, ‘Yes, I can do it — it’s easy.’ So we did it. We did it in one take.”
When Jarrett is told in the prison mess hall of his mother’s death, he goes into a psychotic rage. A very reserved, quiet man off-camera, Cagney had no problem doing the scene n front of the cast and crew, and even invited guests to watch the filming — accomplished again in one take. “For that particular scene,” he recalled, “I knew what deranged people sounded like because as a youngster I had visited where a pal’s uncle was in a hospital for the insane. My god, what an education that was! The shrieks, the screams of those people under constraint! I remembered those cries, saw that they fit and called on my memory to do as required.”
Critics and audiences loved what ultimately became the penultimate gangster film for the formerly socially-conscious studio, which now showed its hero as unredeemable. The film received only one Academy Award nomination — ironically for Best Original Story, by Virginia Kellogg, who had very little to do with the actual film. Cagney, who had wanted to be remembered as a song-and-dance man, became a psychotic to a whole new generation of filmgoers. “Although it turned out to be a good picture in a number of ways,” he later said, “It was just another cheapjack job.”
Orson Welles thought otherwise. After he and Peter Bogdanovich re-watched White Heat together, the two spoke about film acting versus stage acting. Welles said: “Look at Cagney. Everything he does is big, and yet it’s never for a moment unbelievable because it’s real. It’s true. He’s a great movie actor and his performances are in no way modulated for the camera. He never scaled anything down.”
– Dwayne Epstein.