WHITE HEAT

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.

Title page for my chapter on WHITE HEAT.


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. 

WHITE HEAT
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.

(L-R) Ben Roberts & Ivan Goff at work on the script for WHITE HEAT.



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.” 

(L-R) Edmond O’Brien and James Cagney between scenes.



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.” 

Raoul Walsh & Cagney in 1939 during the making of THE ROARING TWENTIES,



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.

Cody Jarrett having one of his fits as Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) tries to comfort him.



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.” 

Verna Jarrett (Virginia Mayo) gets read the Riot Act from her husband Cody.



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.”

“Made it, Ma! Top o’ the world!”



– Dwayne Epstein.

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MY FAVORITE FILM FIGHT SCENES, PART 1 OF 5

Favorite film fight scenes:
If working on Lee Marvin Point Blank has taught me anything, it’s shown me the value of a good fight scene. The medium is called motion pictures for a reason and outside of a good car chase, few things have had as lasting an impact on filmgoers as a well done fight scene. Like all film fans, I of course have my own favorites and for different reasons of each. So, in no special order of preference other than chronological, here are mine, some well known, some obscure, but all worthy of a second look….

1.  ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES1938

James Cagney (center) shows the Dead End Kids how to play basketball.....or else!

James Cagney (center) shows the Dead End Kids how to play basketball…..or else!

Thanks largely to my mother, I’ve been a film fan my enitre life and when it comes to classic films, Warner Brothers is my favorite studio, with James Cagney being my favorite actor in their stable. My being born in a Brooklyn tenement may have had something to do with it.
A dancer by training, Cagney was short, wiry, full of energy and, as contracted by the studio, constantly punching out taller actors in his films. They were often one punch altercations, which is why the basketball game in Angels With Dirty Faces remains one of his best fight scenes. Certainly not a fight scene in the traditional sense, but when you see the way he forces the Dead End Kids to play by the rules, it’s a well-choreographed example of a terrific one-man brawl.
Legend has it the Dead End Kids didn’t like most of their male co-stars and consequently played many tricks on the majority of them — Bogart and Reagan being prime examples. The rare exception was Cagney whom they all liked, as he did in return — with the exception of Leo Gorcey — and it certainly showed on screen. Just a great, timeless sequence in a wonderful film.

2. The Treasure of Sierra Madre – 1948
2Madre

When Lee Marvin was interviewed by Playboy Magazine in 1969 (quoted extensively in Lee Marvin: Point Blank) he spoke at length and with great knowledge on the extent of believable fight scenes in films. Topping his list was the barroom brawl in the beginning of The Treasure of Sierra Madre.
A film remembered mostly for its great performances, themes of greed, and oft-quoted dialogue (“We dun’t need any steenkin’ badges!,” “Fred C. Dobbs don’t say nuthin’ he don’t mean!”), it also contains one of the most brutal fight scenes ever. Tim Holt and Humphrey Bogart confront Barton MacLane about the money he cheated from them. The result is a lengthy, nasty fight, artistically filmed, in which no man is willing to give in, nor politely walk away until the bitter end. If you haven’t seen it, by all means do and you’ll see what I mean. If you have seen it, see it again and remember how remarkably rendered it is, even compared to anything seen today in movies.

3. Red River – 1948

Director Howard Hawks (center) works out the details of REd RIVER'S climatic fight with John Wayne (left) and Montgomery Clift (right).

Director Howard Hawks (center) works out the details of RED RIVER’S climatic fight with John Wayne (left) and Montgomery Clift (right).


John Wayne probably did more fight scenes than any other actor and a personal standout was the climax in Red River, which remains so for several reasons. I am indeed a fan of his films, and although entertaining, many of his fights scenes are either too long & comical for their own good, such as The Quiet Man & McLintock!, or wildly uneven to really be believable, as in The Cowboys & The Sons of Katie Elder.
   The fight scene climaxing Red River, is the exception that works wonderfully for a myriad of reasons. The film’s story line — a sort of western version of Mutiny on the Bounty — had the fight building from the start, and when adopted son Montgomery Clift and Wayne finally square off, it looks to be a one-punch duel.
Wayne was the very image of macho male dominance, while the closeted Clift would come to symbolize the vulnerable and sensitive rebel of the 1950s. It was a grudge match of separate agendas which by definition seemed to doom Clift. Early in the fight Wayne even says to Clift, “Won’t anything make a man out of you?!” After Wayne’s first few punches, the audience is amazed to see Clift not only get up, but knock Wayne on his equally surprised ass. It’s a great moment (despite the film’s ridiculous summation) that we’ve been waiting and hoping for and when it happens, it’s worthy of whoops and hollers!

4. The Adventures of Don Juan – 1949

Errol Flynn (or most likely his stunt double) leaps to adversary Robert Dougas in the thrilling climax of the sword fight THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN.

Errol Flynn (or most likely his stunt double) leaps to adversary Robert Douglas in the thrilling climax of the sword fight THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN.

Few actors can actually be said to be synonymous with a single genre, but in the case of Errol Flynn, he owned the once popular genre of swashsbucklers. Attempts to revive the genre over the years have not faired well simply because there are no Errol Flynns left in the world. He had style, panache, a devilish grin and a manly physique that was perfectly suited for period costumes. I was a huge fan of most of his films that have aged better than the actor’s reputation. All are worth viewing but a personal favorite for me was his last great attempt at the genre, The Adventures of Don Juan. He makes fun of his public image throughout the film but when it came to the expected sword fight finale he is unparalleled. Not a trained fencer but a naturally gifted athlete, even in the twilight of his greatness, Flynn delivers with such memorable dialog as “The sword is too good for a traitor. You die by the knife!” The expansive sets, Oscar-winning costumes and eye-popping color would distract from the viewing in the hands of lesser actors  –Stewart Granger and Cornel Wilde come to mind — but to the underrated Flynn, he fits in and towers over the proceedings as no one else ever did. When it came to actually delivering the goods, he proved to be downright vicious! Along with Robin Hood it is undoubtedly his best work.
5. On The Waterfront1954

Marlon Brando as ex-pug Terry Malloy (left) taunts Lee J. Cobb's crooked union boss John Friendly (right) into a fight into a nasty street brawl.

Marlon Brando as ex-pug Terry Malloy (left) taunts Lee J. Cobb’s crooked union boss John Friendly (right)  into a nasty street brawl.

The repressive 1950s were marked by several social phenomena, not the least of which was the notorious blacklisting of suspected Communists in the film industry. Volumes have been written about it as well as the way in which On the Waterfront played a role in the dark proceedings. Director Elia Kazan had named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee and rumored to have made Waterfront partly as an explanation for his testimony. To bring praise upon the informant, in this case Marlon Brando’s character of Terry Malloy,  the supposedly once close relationship between the two men was forever shattered by the blacklist as Brando never spoke to Kazan during the film unless he had to. Whether any of those things are true is still speculative. What remains is the effect of this documentary-style film.
The film climaxes with a brutal fight between Brando’s Terry Malloy and Lee J. Cobb’s John Friendly, which is equal parts symbolism and realism. Why is it on this list? Brando, arguably the greatest actor who ever lived, is impressive, but that’s not the reason. It’s all about Lee J. Cobb. A primal force of nature, Cobb never got his worthy due as an actor, other than essaying the original stage role of Willy Loman in Death of Salesman. Self-conscious about both his size and non-existent hairline, the bewigged Cobb seems to be angry at Brando’s character in the film but even more bitter over his role in cinema’s pecking order. He bites, kicks, punches and scratches Brando in the scene. When Terry Malloy fights back, John Friendly sends in his goons to finish the job.
In short, it isn’t the beating Brando withstands that makes the scene a favorite. It’s the astonishing brutality of Cobb that puts the classic film on my favorites list. Besides, Brando gets beaten up all the time but Cobb, he’s the stand out!
Next installment, a few surprises!

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IN HONOR OF SAM PECKINPAH’S 90TH BIRTHDAY

Sam Peckinpah would’ve been 90-years-old last month. A recent conversation with writer Jeb Rosebrook (Junior Bonner) reminded me of the fact and the conversation got me to thinking yet again how interesting it would have been had Lee Marvin & Peckinpah ever made a film together. They came close several times — most notably The Wild Bunch — but unfortunately, it never came to pass. They did however work together several times on episodic televison. Peckinpah directed Marvin on “Route 66” and the anthology show “The Dick Powell Theatre.”

Lee Marvin as Dave Blassingame (top), Adam Lazzare as Blind Johnny (left) and Keenan Wynn as Burgundy Smith (right) in The Dick Powell Theatre production of The Losers (1963) directed by Sam Peckinpah.

Lee Marvin as Dave Blassingame (top), Adam Lazzare as Blind Johnny (left) and Keenan Wynn as Burgundy Smith (right) in The Dick Powell Theatre production of The Losers (1963) directed by Sam Peckinpah.

Both shows were written about in Lee Marvin: Point Blank but some rather bizarre anecdotes did not quite make it into the final draft. The information I obtained was from Peckinpah biographer, David Weddle. What did not go in the book can be found below. Enjoy and Happy birthday Sam!

David Weddle, author of the 1994 Sam Peckinpah biography, "If They Move, Kill'em!"

David Weddle, author of the 1994 Sam Peckinpah biography, “If They Move, Kill’em!”

Weddle: When Sam was working out at Warner Brothers during The Wild Bunch & Cable Hogue, they [Marvin & Peckinpah] would meet over at these bars. I forgot the names of them but all these bars, like the Mexican restaurant by Warners, a lot of stuntmen used to congregate there….. So Sam would go in and tear up and he Lee Marvin would get together there a lot. This one lawyer, who used to work for Sam when Sam was having a lawsuit against Warner Brothers, would show up there. He had to get Sam to sign papers pertaining to the lawsuit. Sam would say, ‘Meet me at so-and-so…’ Anyway, he’d be sitting there like, ‘Sam I need you to sign. Here are the papers.’ He’d be with Marvin and scream at him, ‘You son-of-a-bitch! You don’t know what you’re talking about!’ Marvin would say, ‘Fuck you, Peckinpah!’ Then the lawyer would say something and Peckinpah would go, ‘Yeah just a minute.’ [Yelling to Marvin], ‘And another thing…!’ I think they came to blows a couple of times, or shook each other. They never seriously hurt each other.
D: After Peckinpah’s death and about a year before his own, Marvin was quoted as saying something interesting about Sam: “The problem with Sam and I was I had Sam’s number and he had mine and that’s a dangerous thing because he’s a little guy.”
W: There was that other line that Peckinpah is quoted a couple of times. He was drinking with Marvin one time and said, ‘God, I hate actors.’ Marvin smiled and said, ‘Every actor does, Sam.’
D: Marvin may felt cheated out of The Wild Bunch but I’ve read where Peckinpah put on a big act of being chetaed of Emperor of the North
W: Yeah, I talked to [producer] Ken Hyman about that. They had been waiting and waiting for Sam. I heard other stories but his is probably true because Ken Hyman is a pretty honorable guy. Sam decided to go off and do The Getaway because they offered him a great deal, a better deal. He kept telling Hyman, ‘Just wait, I’ll do yours next.’ He had promised to do it next, instead, he took The Getaway. So, Hyman just decided, ‘Forget it. I’m going with somebody else [Robert Aldrich]. I’m not waiting.’ Then Sam turned around, as Sam often did and said, ‘Ah, you stabbed me in the back.’

The late Sam Peckinpah, who would've been 90 years old last month.

The late Sam Peckinpah, who would’ve been 90 years old last month.

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