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Tag Archives: James Cagney

White Heat (Sept. 2, 1949)

White Heat
White Heat (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

White Heat lives up to its name. It starts with a bang and ends with an even bigger bang.

The tempo doesn’t slacken in the middle, either. Director Raoul Walsh had a great sense of scope and pacing, and White Heat is one of his best films.

Walsh is a director I’ve seen a lot of lately. I recently re-watched High Sierra (1941) and watched The Roaring Twenties (1939) for the first time. I’ve also reviewed six of his other films since I started this blog.

I had good things to say about Walsh’s last movie, Colorado Territory (1949), but White Heat is a masterpiece. It features a blistering performance by James Cagney as the psychopathic criminal Cody Jarrett and rolls together elements of gangster films, police procedurals, heist movies, prison dramas, and movies about undercover cops.

White Heat brought the era of the Warner Bros. gangster movie to a close, while laying the groundwork for all the crime and heist pictures to come.

Cody Jarrett headline

The era of the Warner Bros. gangster movie began in 1931 with the release of Little Caesar, which made Edward G. Robinson a star, and The Public Enemy, which made James Cagney a star.

As a contract player for Warner Bros. and as an independent actor, Cagney played all types of roles, but his persona is most closely associated with gangster roles in movies like Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939).

White Heat is unique because Cody Jarrett lacks any redeeming characteristics. Unlike his previous gangster roles, where glimmers of humanity and acts of redemptive self-sacrifice were commonplace, in White Heat he’s a trigger-happy psychopath.

Even the thing that should make him more human — his relationship with his mother — is twisted. Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) is just as cold-blooded as her son, and has a more important leadership role in Cody’s gang than his own wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo).

In the scene where Cody Jarrett says goodbye to his mother and wife at a drive-in theater, Ma Jarrett is sitting between them and there is clearly more affection between Cody and his Ma than there is between Cody and Verna.

Mayo Wycherly and Cagney

Virginia Mayo was the female lead in Walsh’s previous film, Colorado Territory (which was a loose remake of Walsh’s own film High Sierra), but that role couldn’t have been more different from Verna Jarrett.

In Colorado Territory, she was the ultimate ride-or-die chick, ready and willing to go down in a hail of bullets with her man by her side.

In White Heat she a faithless slattern who’s only out for herself.

She might be a better role model in Colorado Territory, but her performance in White Heat is one for the ages. When we first see her, she’s in bed and snoring. Later, when she’s serving drinks to Cody and another man, she serves herself a big slug of whisky first and gets good and loaded. In one scene, she spits out her chewing gum before kissing Cody. These are all things that were simply not done by Hollywood actresses at the time of the film’s release.

Cagney and OBrien

The memorable villains in White Heat have their stolid good-guy counterpoint in Edmond O’Brien, who plays a Treasury Agent named Hank Fallon. After the daring train heist that opens the film, Cody Jarrett turns himself in for a smaller crime he didn’t commit to beat the bigger rap. The T-men send Fallon into the prison under the name “Vic Pardo” to cozy up to Jarrett. Fallon isn’t a very interesting character, but he’s in an interesting situation, and O’Brien excelled at playing Average Joes up to their necks in trouble.

The T-men who back up Fallon are all interchangeable squares, but their methods are fascinating. Police procedurals and docudramas were extremely popular when Walsh directed White Heat, and the film features modern law enforcement techniques like a three-car tail with radio communication to coordinate cars A, B, and C. The police tail that leads up to the climax of the film involves long-range surveillance that uses two electronic oscillators zeroing in on a transmitter secretly placed by Fallon.

Made It Ma

It might be hard for today’s viewers to see, but White Heat was an extremely current film at the time of its release. The law-enforcement methods are modern, and the film playing at the drive-in where Cody says goodbye to Verna and his Ma was a current release, Task Force (1949).

Most importantly, it’s not a story of romantic gangsters who belong to the past. Cody Jarrett is nothing like the tragic gangster Humphrey Bogart played in High Sierra, who meets his fate on a lonely mountain range. Cody Jarrett’s last stand takes place amid the gleaming silver pipes and Horton spheres of a Shell Oil plant.

There’s nothing romantic or tragic about Cody Jarrett’s last stand. It’s a violent, psychopathic “screw you” to the world, and one of the most memorable moments in cinematic history.

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13 Rue Madeleine (Jan. 15, 1947)

Henry Hathaway’s 13 Rue Madeleine is a spiritual sequel to his espionage docudrama thriller The House on 92nd Street (1945). The address this time around refers not to the headquarters of a Nazi spy ring in New York City, but to Gestapo headquarters in Le Havre, France, during World War II.

Like The House on 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine owes a debt to the style and presentation of Louis de Rochemont’s “March of Time” newsreels. (De Rochemont served as producer of both films.) I enjoyed The House on 92nd Street, but judged purely as a cinematic experience, 13 Rue Madeleine is the superior film.

A lot of that is due to the film’s star. James Cagney is dynamic and arresting in every role I’ve ever seen him play, and I would pay to watch a film in which all he did was order and consume room service by himself.

In this film, Cagney plays Robert Emmett “Bob” Sharkey, an instructor of potential agents in a U.S. agency called “O77.” (The organization is clearly based on the O.S.S., but the name was changed because of certain plot elements that we’ll get to in a moment.)

Early in the film, Sharkey’s boss, Charles Gibson (Walter Abel), informs him that one of his students is a German mole named Wilhelm Kuncel. The mole turns out to be one of his most promising pupils, William H. “Bill” O’Connell (Richard Conte). O’Connell looks and acts as American as apple pie, and during training grew especially close to blond, fresh-faced Jeff Lassiter (Frank Latimore), who never suspected a thing.

Gibson orders Sharkey to pass O’Connell and to not let on what he knows, in order to feed false information to the Germans through O’Connell. Alas, O’Connell proves to be even cannier than Sharkey’s bosses could have predicted, and this decision leads to a series of tragedies.

Conte isn’t an actor I could have picked out of a lineup a year ago, but after seeing him now in several roles, I think he’s a tremendous performer, and I look forward to a lifetime of watching his films. It doesn’t matter for his role as a double agent in 13 Rue Madeleine that he doesn’t look the slightest bit “German.” In a wordless scene in a transport plane over Europe, as O’Connell and Lassiter are preparing to jump, O’Connell suddenly sees what the straight-arrow Lassiter can’t hide, and the look on his face is chilling.

Blood on the Sun (April 26, 1945)

BloodSunJames Cagney made a big splash in William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931). It was his first starring role. Some people claim that when Cagney first walked on screen in that picture, it was the beginning of “modern acting.” Whether or not you believe that claim, there’s no denying the impact Cagney had on Hollywood, especially gangster films. The scene in which he shoves a grapefruit half into Mae Clarke’s face is iconic. Late in his life, Cagney claimed that people still sent grapefruits to his table in restaurants, with a wink and a nod. The Public Enemy ushered in a new era of onscreen violence, and an icon was born.

Cagney would go on to play many criminals, gangsters, and con men, in films like Smart Money (1931), Blonde Crazy (1931), Hard to Handle (1933), Picture Snatcher (1933), The Mayor of Hell (1933), Lady Killer (1933), He Was Her Man (1934), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Each Dawn I Die (1939), and The Roaring Twenties (1939). He was so good in these roles that when a lot of people hear the name “Jimmy Cagney,” they can only think of a sneering mug with a gat clenched in his fist and a cigarette dangling from his lower lip. But Cagney was a versatile actor. He also played cops, G-men, servicemen, and comedic roles, as well as singing and dancing in musicals. In fact, the only Academy Award he ever won was for his role in Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), a drama and musical that told the life of George M. Cohan.

I think Cagney is a great actor with a unique style and personality. Anything he appears in is worth watching. Blood on the Sun was directed by Frank Lloyd, a Hollywood veteran who’d been making pictures since the silent era. It’s a wartime potboiler with a dubious MacGuffin; the Tanaka Memorial, an alleged strategic document from 1927 in which Prime Minister Baron Tanaka Giichi created for Emperor Showa a strategy to take over the world. It is believed by many historians to have been a forgery. In the ’30s and ’40s, however, the document was widely accepted as true. It was mentioned in Frank Capra’s agitprop documentary series, Why We Fight, and translations were published in Chinese and American periodicals. Of course, one reason why it was widely regarded to be an actual document is because Japan’s actions so closely mirrored the strategy that the Tanaka Memorial outlined; the conquest of Manchuria and Mongolia, followed by the invasion of China, the establishment of bases in the Pacific, and the eventual conquest of the United States. So although General MacArthur’s armies were unable to uncover any original Japanese-language versions of the Tanaka plan after World War II, perhaps its authenticity is beside the point.

In Blood on the Sun, which takes place in Tokyo in the late ’20s, Cagney plays an American reporter named Nick Condon. Condon writes for the Tokyo Chronicler, which is essentially a mouthpiece for the Japanese government, and is aimed at the Western business community. When Condon writes and publishes an article about a secret plan that outlines Japan’s plans for world domination, his editor tells him to print a retraction. He refuses, and the Japanese secret police plant a false story in the newspaper designed to discredit Condon. When Condon still refuses to back down, the Japanese secret police raise the stakes by murdering two of Condon’s friends, whom they believe are smuggling a copy of the Tanaka plan out of the country. Eventually, the film becomes a cat-and-mouse espionage thriller, with Condon on the run with a “half-breed” named Iris Hilliard, played by Sylvia Sidney, who is originally sent by the secret police to ingratiate herself to Condon and find out if he has a copy of the Tanaka plan. (Since Sidney is a white actress in yellowface makeup, I wasn’t clear for awhile which two races she was supposed to be descended from. One is Chinese, but I could have sworn that at one point, another character described her as being half Japanese/half Chinese. Her surname, however, implies that her father was British or American. So I must have misheard the line of dialogue.) Besides the questionable historical accuracy of Blood on the Sun, the white actors playing Japanese roles will probably be the hardest thing for modern audiences to swallow. John Emery, who plays Tanaka, and Robert Armstrong, who plays Col. Hideki Tojo, are not the worst examples of yellowface I’ve ever seen, but with their indeterminate, lisping accents, they’re still pretty bad. Blood on the Sun isn’t a particularly racist film, however, especially when one considers the context in which it was made. All of its villains are representatives of the Japanese government, which committed horrifying atrocities during World War II, and with whom the United States was still at war when this film was made. Several of the actors in smaller roles are actually Asians (although it’s unlikely that too many, if any, are actually Japanese).

The main reasons to see this film today, aside from historical curiosity, are the performance of Cagney and the well-choreographed fight scenes. Blood on the Sun won a single Oscar at the 18th Academy Awards in 1946, for best art direction in a black and white film, but it should have won for “most awesome martial arts battle in an American film.” Sadly, such a category did not exist. How could it? Martial arts were new to Hollywood. Some people cite John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) as having the first real martial arts fight scene in an American film, which is clearly not the case. Frank Sinatra and Henry Silva’s karate chops were fine, but they pale in comparison to the brutal judo smackdown that crowns Blood on the Sun. Cagney studied judo for this film, and liked it so much he kept it up for most of his life. How could he not? A born-and-bred brawler, Cagney clearly took to martial arts like a fish to water. The combination of judo throws and boxing as he fights the leader of the secret police, Capt. Oshima, played by Jack Sergel (who acted under the stage name “John Halloran”), is fairly basic by today’s standards, but it’s still impressive. Cagney and Sergel go to the ground several times, and the chokeholds and arm bars look as if they hurt. So do the throat punches. Sergel was actually my favorite actor in the film after Cagney. He’s tall, menacing, and has a shaved head and black mustache. He doesn’t look particularly Japanese, but he’s more convincing as an Asian than any of the other white actors in the film. Sergel was a former LAPD officer who had been investigated by the FBI because of his involvement with the sport of judo, including his participation in at least one judo tournament that was held in a Japanese internment camp. Even though he was a Los Angeles police sergeant and loyal American citizen, his admiration for Japanese culture and sport was seen as suspicious by federal and local authorities, and he ended up resigning from the LAPD in 1944. Cagney spends a lot of his time in this film punching, kicking, and throwing the bad guys who come after him, but his fight with Sergel is the high point. Cagney was a small man, and Sergel towers over him, but Cagney’s sheer physicality makes you believe they’re evenly matched.