Thursday, August 14, 2008

Film Ignorance #11: White Heat

What we have here are my thoughts on White Heat. Head on over to MovieZeal, if you haven't already, to get somebody else's thoughts on White Heat, and all the articles on noir you can handle in a month. It's noir month over at MovieZeal, and I'm just along for the ride.

Film: White Heat
Rating: Best. Film. Ever.
Director: Raoul Walsh
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Margaret Wycherly, Edmond O'Brien
Year: 1949
Reason for Ignorance: Hated The Public Enemy

Ignorance Rating*: 40 (5 Votes)
"Made it, Ma, top of the world!"

A couple days after The Departed came out, I was trying to make sense of its over-the-top nature (the rat scene, Jack with the dildo, the FBI nonsense) and I came up with an analogy. Just as White Heat came out 20 years after the heyday of the gangster movie of the early 30s, and represented a ratcheting up of its melodramatic and libidinal concerns to a point nearing self-parody, so did The Departed represent a hyperbolic and near-parodic rendering of the concerns of the classic 70s gangster movie. White Heat: The Public Enemy, Scarface, Little Caesar::The Departed: The Godfather Parts 1 and 2, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver. (The fact that you could replace The Departed in that analogy with 1983's Scarface didn't bother me in the slightest, even though Scarface is basically a White Heat remake).

Of course, as you can tell from its status as Film Ignorance, I had only read about, not seen, White Heat. Please, whatever you think of my analogy, allow me a little delayed self-congratulation: I can't think of any movie (not even Infernal Affairs) as similar to The Departed as White Heat. Not only are both absolutely over-the-top gangster movies that nevertheless manage to tell tight and exciting stories, both of them feature gangsters whose sexual desires have been radically diverted. And the coup de grace is: unbeknownst to me, White Heat is also an undercover cop story. Dynomite!

In the 30s gangster film, and particularly in Cagney's Public Enemy, critics noticed that the gangster seemed more attached to his Ma than to any more appropriate object of sexual desire. Dames and molls could come and go, and might get a piece of grapefruit in their face for their trouble, but the gangster would always love his Ma. White Heat's Cody Jarret takes these subtle undertones and makes them blatant, blazing overtones: Cody kills his own men indiscriminately, and displays almost no interest in his wife (sexual or otherwise) but this dude loves, loves, loves his Ma. In a very Freudian move, he used to fake headaches to get her attention, but now the headaches come unbidden as part of his psychoses. Cody Jarrett is a portrait of degeneration; he's falling apart at the seams, and getting more violent as he does so, as his libido builds up without finding an acceptable outlet. The only place it can come out is in death and destruction, which White Heat has in spades: I cannot believe the Production Code allowed such a murderous sociopathic portrait to hit the big screen. I've always considered Cagney a comical overactor (hence my dislike of Public Enemy) but in this film, his overwrought mannerisms are both enjoyably comical and murderously chilling (just like Jack's in The Departed).

But White Heat is not just about Jarrett and his hangups. It's an absolutely fantastic gangster film and undercover cop film. When Jarrett's in jail - having confessed to a crime he didn't commit to get an alibi from a worse crime - the FBI sends their undercover specialist Hank Fallon (Edmund O'Brien) to get info on the crime Jarret actually committed. Posing as a criminal, Hank has to get close to Cody, which is nigh impossible, as Cody seems to only trust his mother. Furthermore, Hank had a career as a regular FBI agent, so he also has to avoid criminals who know him. As in The Departed, this makes for some of the tensest and most exciting sequences in gangster film history, as Hank has to gain Cody's trust while keeping his own sanity and avoiding those who know him. If Cagney is the movie's flaming ID, O'Brien is its tortured Ego, trying to keep himself intact while performing a troubling moral balancing act.

To put it simply, White Heat is one of the most exciting and satisfying movies I've ever seen. Both the vicious opening heist and the overblown final heist provide action and suspense, as does the relationship between Cody and Hank. And the film's awkward love parallelogram between Cody, his wife, second-in-command Big Ed, and Ma has got sexual energy to spare. White Heat is a romp through America's criminal underbelly, not one in which criminality is revealed as the wretched, doomed inverse of the American dream, but the absurd, violent, and sexually charged perversion of the American dream. No film would make the romp so much fun until The Departed (or maybe Goodfellas).

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.


Evan Derrick said...

That's a great angle on the similarities between this and The Departed. I agree with you completely - this one functions as fantastic entertainment, made all the more fantastic because it was created almost 60 years ago. The film holds up incredibly well.

Ryan said...

White Heat is one of the greatest films of all time.... but scarface (1983) is a remake of the original scarface which was released in the 30's.... making white heat a basic remake of scarface