Sunday Night Movie: White Heat

annex-cagney-james-white-heat_01Okay, so technically this is not my Sunday Night Movie but rather my Sunday Morning Movie. I watched this little gem on DVD in the morning and that was good because by the time the evening had rolled around I was far too tired for any movie night.
White Heat(1949) represented James Cagney returning to the genre that made him a superstar, The Warner Brothers’ Gangster Movie. While other stars return to the launching genres usually out of the hopes of reviving a fading career, Cagney made White Heat well before any decline in his career. It was the movie he wanted to make and he got to play a character he wanted to play.

Cody Jarrett (Cagney) is a hood with gang and real problems. He has gang-members challenging his authority, a wife who is stepping out on him, migraine headaches that can incapacitate him at a moment’s notice, and a mother complex that would make Oedipus blanche. (It doesn’t help that dear Ma is a member of the gang and fully supportive of her little boy’s killin’ ways.)
When a Job goes bad Cody is suddenly on the run from the law and facing a double murder rap. (Mind in this day and era a double murder rap generally meant a death penalty that didn’t take decades to carry out.) This film is a superb movie if dramatic and dynamic tension. The screenwriters and the director had a perfect sense of how to build tension, how to establish vital facts before they are used, and how to create believable scenes and technology. The details in the tailing of cars and the use of radio direction finding gear looks to be dead on and show the ignorance and stupidity of today’s film-makers on these sort of technical subjects. Beyond that the writers and director understood how to craft a plot that inherently builds tension and you do that by having things go wrong. The old saying “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” is true in spades here. Everyone’s plans. Cody’s, the mutinous gang-members, and the police’s all are spun off kilter by events that are credible and unpredictable. Watching the characters deal with the events creates drama and tension.
The film ends in the only it way could given the Hays Code in force at the time, but even more so like a Greek Tragedy this film has but one ending and it runs there with the inevitability of gravity. Despite all this the ending pays off. It’s a superb piece of movie making and having watched it via Netflix I plan to add this film to my library.