This week in The Best of Film Noir we’re looking at a film that many would say isn’t film noir…but as you will see, it is. White Heat, released in 1949, stars James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, and Edmund O’Brien. White Heat is most definitely a gangster film, ranking on AFI’s Top 10 gangster films (as well as their Top 100 of all time), and it has some of the great all-time lines as well.
The Best of Film Noir – The Noir Hero
We may not have a traditional noir hero but we certainly have a unique one. James Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, the violent leader of a ruthless gang of criminals. Jarrett has a weird, almost oedipal relationship with his mother (a fantastic acting job by Margaret Wycherly), so much so that it’s almost uncomfortable to watch. And this is what makes our hero a noir hero, that even in the midst of his chaos, in his being trapped in circumstances he can’t seem to control, we see a soft side to him (it is also a piece of what makes this such a great film).
The Best of Film Noir – The Noir Feel
Directed by Raoul Walsh, White Heat has flourishes of film noir, but the feel doesn’t come from the typical dark scenes and shadows, but with a new modern sense (for instance, the machinery in the prison and the new techniques used by the police) that leaves us feeling like Jarrett is lost in this post-World War II era. Walsh delivers a powerful movie experience, a great action film wrapped in noir.
The Best of Film Noir – The Writing
I’ve said before that I love watching some of these great film noir in large part because of the writing, and White Heat is no exception. From Jarrett’s famous line, “Top of the world, Ma!” to “It’s stuffy in here. I need some air,” and then what comes next (I don’t want to spoil it), White Heat is filled with great writing. I guess if there are multiple memorable lines in a movie, the writers probably got something right . I can only hope that someday someone will quote me…
The Best of Film Noir – Trivia and Goofs
The unusually close relationship between Cody Jarrett and his domineering mother was inspired by real life bank robbers Kate Barker (aka “Ma Barker”) and her sons,
All the locations and bearings radioed back and forth during the triangulation tracking of the gasoline truck, as it moves southwest across the Los Angeles basin, are accurate. They can all be found on a modern map of Los Angeles. Even the view of the Los Angeles City Hall shows up at the appropriate time.
Jim Thorpe, the sports legend, is one of the cons in the “telephone game”.
As Evans and Pardo drink coffee, Evans’ coffee cup changes several times from a dark to a light cup.
In the opening railroad heist, there is a shot of a man jumping down from an overpass onto the train. When he lands the mats used to break his fall can be clearly seen.
After the prison break, the men are in their cabin hideout when the phone rings. Cody gets angry and rips it off the wall with several violent tugs yet the wire never moves. Once the phone comes completely loose, it’s apparent that the phone was never hooked up to the wire in the first place.
Thanks to IMDb for those.
So grab your popcorn and favorite drink and settle in for a truly classic film, regardless of whether it’s a gangster film or film noir.
If you love film noir, you should read This Doesn’t Happen In The Movies, a Reader’s Favorite Finalist for mystery.
What a reader says:
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