A Series of Crimes: White Heat, by Aaron Pinkston
White Heat is a fantastic pairing with the last film in this crime series, Angels with Dirty Faces. Released 11 years later, just before the dawn of the 1950s, White Heat contradicts and reverses almost every genre convention and plot point established by its predecessor. Again we have James Cagney as the rough-and-tumble gangster figure, though this time he isn’t the basically upstanding one, but a full-on mean son-of-a-gun. Cody Jarrett is angry, psychopathic, perhaps even mentally ill. The gangster “origin story” is also skewed — Cody isn’t a product of his environment like Rocky, but of his biology. He’s a criminal from the very first frames of the film, committing a heist and ruthlessly killing, a pretty apt first impression of his character.
Taking place post-World War II, at the upswing into 1950s society, White Heat perfectly encapsulates this time through the eyes of the gangster in a number of ways. First off, the film takes us away from the criminal underbellies of urban environments to the suburbs, where Cody and his family live. Outside of one or two scenes, the entire film is placed in either the suburbs or rural America, a much different place than the action of Angels with Dirty Faces. On the lazy suburban streets, lined with modest ranch-style houses, this isn’t the typical environment for crime. In fact, many middle-class Americans left the cities because the suburbs are supposed to be a place without the crime of the city. They are typically quiet, non-diverse, where children play in the streets and the dogs lounge behind picket fences. The hustle-and-bustle of the city is perhaps more cinematic for the crime film, but White Heat plays around with its setting, constructing a police “chase” near the beginning of the film with a little ingenuity, relying more on suspense than action thrills.
Another typical 1950s film trope seen in the film is the use of (and complete misunderstanding of) mental illness. There is something wrong with Cody, some sort of hodgepodge of panic attacks, mother worship and general insanity. Whenever he comes across a stressful situation, he is prone to completely snapping into psychosis — it’s a condition that may have some real-world bearing, but the film uses it like a blind person uses a hammer. At times Cody even appears to just be acting out like a petulant child, grunting, sulking and clenching manically. Still, the film wants us to know that this is a very serious condition, that Cody’s father died in a mental institution. Cody might just fully snap, too. Because of this, there is extra pressure on the police to get to him as quickly as possible, otherwise they may never get him for the crimes that could put him on death row. White Heat’s vision of a gangster is much more than just a criminal or a mere psychopath, but medically deranged. This view of criminals is commonplace for the 1950s, a society of calm conformity.
And, of course, the gangster must meet his ultimate demise, just as in the other crime films I’ve written about so far. Given the slant on the 1950s, a culture that desperately tried to weed out deviants, because the gangster is a man who breaks the societal norms it is particularly imperative that he be stopped. Though not a new idea, it’s a different perspective on the standard trope of the genre and plays well with this reading.
Though Cody Jarrett is certainly the center of this film, his mother (known only as Ma) is a very interesting character in the context of a crime film. She doesn’t seem to be explicitly a criminal, at least at first, falling in line with many other mothers in the crime film who wouldn’t get their hands dirty, but are usually happy to live the lifestyle that comes with it. After Cody admits to a crime he didn’t commit (in order to escape charges of a more serious crime that he did commit), Ma steps into the leading role of the organization and she shows to be smarter and more ruthless than most cinematic criminals. She has great knowledge of the law, uses her perception as a little old lady to every advantage, and would do anything to protect her son. It turns out she would even go further than Cody when she plots the murder of his turncoat associate — maybe Cody would have off’d his buddy too, but she showcases a coldness that is much more frightening. The relationship between Cody and his ma is something else, closer to Norman Bates and his mother than the normal mother-son relationship. His famous last words cement the importance of this character and their relationship, a fascinating look at a crime family.
White Heat is not only a gangster film; it also explores the prison film and the heist film. The cross of these subgenres blends pretty seamlessly, with the second act taking place entirely behind bars and the final act a heist. These extended sequences could easily have been stretched out to their own features, but they both feel substantial enough while not over-stuffing the film when it all comes together. These sequences play as mini movies while building something larger in the creation of its character, giving us a complete look at the gangster — usually we only see him in the prison context or the heist context, here we have a two-for-one deal. During the prison sequences we see how that microcosm society works politically, and how a guy like Cody can rise to power quickly. The heist is systematic — we meticulously learn how it will be done and then see it played out, step by step, leading to the eventual downfall. White Heat showcases exactly what audiences would come to love from both genres. Still, White Heat is a tried-and-true gangster film. Even as it spurns the concepts of its predecessors, it does so in a way that holds true to the crime film — that it is a product of its era.