Movie: White Heat (1949)

There are many people who seen vastly more film noir that I have, but I don’t know any of them personally.  And I have been slow to see some of the most legendary titles of this genre, as I simply wander through my stacks of blu-ray discs and get to the landmarks as they happen to surface.

Which is how I finally came to see White Heat, a movie that is so great that I wish I could wipe it out of my memory just so I can experience it new again.  I watched this even though we hadn’t first seen the movie this is the sequel to: White Light.  OK, there isn’t such a movie—I just wanted to work in a Velvet Underground reference.

Despite James Cagney dying at the end of The Public Enemy, this 1949 film feels like a sequel to that one from almost twenty years prior.  If anything, Cagney is even more terrifying and unhinged here than in that wonder of the pre-code age.

When we first see him, he and his gang are the about to pull the trigger on a train heist they’ve staged.  In this exhilarating operation, the gang is divided into two parts: some men are on board the train, where they incapacitate security, while Cagney and three others are in a car racing ahead of it.  While a couple of thugs hit the switch ahead of the engine, Cagney leaps down onto the moving train as it exits a tunnel.

Once the locomotive is brought to a stop, they dynamite the mail car open.  When Cagney kills the conductors, the collapsing body of one of his victims hits a switch opening the steam release.  One of Cagney’s men is scalded by the steam bad enough to result in him being thoroughly bandaged and incapacitated on a sofa.  This is the last we will see of this character, but I was hoping we would see him after the bandages are removed. Maybe we’d discover he had turned into the invisible man.

That sofa is in the gang’s hideout, which is where we will meet the most interesting characters in Cagney’s orbit.  Virginia Mayo, playing his duplicitous wife, is snoring when we first see her.  I haven’t seen a noir femme fatale introduced in such a realistic manner before.  But the more interesting woman in his wife is his mother, played by Margaret Wycherly. 

If it wasn’t for Cagney, Wycherly would steal the show.  Hers is a fascinating character, a lioness who will do anything to protect her cub.  This is a mother who will literally kill to protect her progeny.  I’d sooner cross anybody in this picture, including Cagney, before I’d anger his mom. 

She especially helps him when he gets crippling migraine attacks.  This is an interesting aspect of Cagney’s character, a vulnerability in the tough guy persona that movies of that era wouldn’t usually consider.  In these attacks, Cagney is reduced to crawling around on the floor and screaming.  I’m not sure what is suggested by exposition a detective provides about this but we learn from him these attacks were originally faked by Cagney when he was a child, but they eventually became a real menace.

The movie was already fascinating in this first act, but it becomes something truly special when Cagney confesses to a different heist so to have an alibi for the train robbery and its multiple homicides.  The especially interesting potential development is Mayo and Steve Cochran, as one of Cagney’s henchmen, are ready to jump each other as soon as he’s away.  Ma is especially aware of this possibility, and even alludes to the Mayo’s past as a prostitute.

Mayo: “What do I for the next two years?”  Wycherly: “Same thing you did before you married him.”  Cagney: “Better not.  I plan to come back.”

The police are wise to Cagney’s ruse but helpless to do anything but sentence him for the wrong, lesser crime.  They have one ace up their sleeve with Edmund O’Brien, a professional stool pigeon who is placed in prisons alongside the criminals they need inside information from.  I’m not sure why a policeman would accept such a job, as I truly do not think there is enough money in the world to convince me to do this.  At least his superior tries to put a silver lining on the assignment: “You’ll love the food there.  Put the chef there myself.”

A serious complication in using O’Brien for these assignments is he could be recognized from work either inside or outside of prisons.  Where Cagney is going, there is one prisoner O’Brien put behind bars.  An even worse complication is that guy is part of Cagney’s gang.

But he’s not either of the prisoners Cagney and O’Brien will share a cell with.  I really found these minor characters interesting.  One of them needs a hearing aid but can read lips from quite a distance, which makes for unique moments of suspense.

These two provide a great toss-off moment that has stuck with me in a big way.  In their shared cell, Cagney whines, “I’m a US citizen, ain’t I?”  The other two guys say in unison “Not lately” and crack themselves up.  It is moments like these that are true movie magic to me.  Given how artificial the entire movie making process is, it is a minor miracle when fully realistic moments appear in the output of a major studio.  The more mundane that kind of moment is, the more amazed I am.

I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, so this is a good time to give a shout-out to the great photography.  The film’s climax is staged at an oil refinery and the enormous, spherical oil tanks look downright alien in photography that is somehow black, grey and silver.

One element of the picture that surprised me is the focus on the latest police technology of the time.  There is an especially interesting scene where a vehicle is tracked by two radar-equipped cruisers.  Each car determines the direction of the signal and relays that information back to headquarters, where the lines are drawn on a map.  Where the lines intersect marks the location of the vehicle they are pursuing.  There’s even a solid explanation of how this triangulation works.

The script is packed with memorable lines.  In addition to the ones I already mentioned, another than stuck with me is Cagney and his cellmates commenting on a heavily blacked-out letter: “Look what they left out of this one.  Must have been a lulu before the censor got hold of it.”  I also like Cagney’s reply to Mayo whining about the radio not working: “What do you want me to do, get unemployment insurance for it?”

White Heat is an amazing, visceral noir.  I didn’t think it could be tougher than the pre-code The Public Enemy, but there we go.  Then again, I still can’t believe there was ever a time when service stations took pride in the cleanliness of their restrooms, and yet that was a big part of the plot towards the end. 

Dir: Raoul Walsh

Starring James Cagney, Edmund O’Brien, Virginia Mayo

Watched on Warner Bros. blu-ray