Saturday, August 10, 2013

White Heat (1949)

WHO: Raoul Walsh directed this film starring James Cagney as Cody Jarrett.

WHAT: Cody Jarrett's watchful eye is everywhere in this post-war gangster picture. Even when it's not. As played by Cagney, Jarrett holds a grip on his gang of big-time bandits, ensuring their fealty through their need for his leadership and their fear of his determined ruthlessness despite their obvious hatred of him. He's perfectly aware that the only member of his gang with real loyalty to him is his mother (played chillingly by Margaret Wycherly); when he gives himself up to the police on a phony charge in order to protect himself from being nabbed for the real heist he committed in another state on the same day, he's confident that his associates will back him up on this gambit. His words to his wife (Virginia Mayo), "Cry a little. Like you're sad," drip with sarcasm and menace and the knowledge that their marriage is built on the same cocktail of greed and coercion that binds his gang together.

But it's an untenable long-term configuration. Jarrett can handily patch the fraying of his coalition that occurs during his prison stay, but when he tries to replace the one rock-solid devotional relationship he has with another after its dissolution, he picks the wrong man, resulting in the explosive finale of the picture which has gone down in cinema history as perhaps the iconic image of Cagney and of the movie gangster.

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive at 8:30.

WHY: The PFA's Raoul Walsh series ends tonight but cries out for a sequel. I feel lucky that I've been able to see nearly every show in the series, something I'm rarely able to say about the PFA's wonderful director retrospectives. But with only fourteen films shown out of Walsh's approximately hundred completed films (admittedly many of them now considered lost) my desire to see more of the consummate Hollywood director's films has not been sated by the series but stoked. I hope there's soon a chance to see Sadie Thompson, Walsh's famous silent starring Gloria Swanson and himself, and The Naked And The Dead, which Dave Kehr spoke of so tantalizingly in one of his enlightening  conversations with the audience during his appearances last weekend, and Battle Cry, a favorite of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who gets his own PFA retrospective starting in October).

It's not just obscure titles that were missing from this series, either. One of the best-known Walsh films, The Roaring Twenties, was MIA from this selection. It, like A Lion In the Streets and the truly great Strawberry Blonde, is another Walsh-Cagney collaboration, and tonight's showing of White Heat will have to stand in for the other films in this fruitful director-actor pairing.

But I don't mean to complain. I'm truly grateful that this series was mounted by the PFA, as it brought me much closer to understanding the importance (and, yes, the limitations) of one of the least-discussed major directors from the first half of Hollywood history.

HOW: White Heat screens in 35mm, following a (separate admission) showing of Walsh's other famous 1940s gangster picture, They Drive By Night starring Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino.

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