White Heat (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
114 min.; U.S.A.; Black and White; Mono
Last week I looked at Anatole Litvak's The Snake Pit (1948), a social problem picture starring Olivia de Havilland about mental illness and the poor conditions inside the underfunded, overcrowded state mental hospitals in post-war America. The picture predicted that the former problem was curable through time-consuming psychotherapy but offered no solution for the latter problem. After WWII and before the advent of antipsychotic drugs there was an increase in demands on psychiatry and state hospitals for solutions to mental illness so it's no wonder that we find the subject turn up in motion pictures made in the post-war era including variations on genre pictures. As a follow up to the previous post, I'm going to explore one of these genre pictures (one I've never seen before) and determine what role mental illness plays in it.
Everybody's dirty: a great film noir moment in White Heat. Partially hidden in shadow, the fugitive Jarrett is determined to have revenge on Big Ed (Steve Cochran) for murdering his Ma while Jarrett's wife Verna (Virigina Mayo), who had previously deserted him to be with Big Ed, now betrays her lover.
Thankfully, Walsh doesn't surrender the gangster film to the world of the affected mind just because his lead character is mentally ill. White Heat isn't some Daliesque version of The Public Enemy (1931). In fact, except for one auditory hallucination coupled with a brief semi-surreal montage (see images above), which was likely used only for dramatic effect, Walsh keeps us completely distanced from Jarrett's inner reality. This provides Cagney with the freedom to act out his character's traumas rather than react to them. Though a surreal gangster picture might be cool (anyone out there know if one has been attempted on screen yet?) Walsh gives us a fast paced suspense thriller with split storytelling detailing Jarrett's final days as a gang leader and the methodical Treasury agents' manhunt for him.
In an unusual chase scene montage with dissolves, Walsh reinforces the T-men's reliance on technology to find and capture Jarrett. Here we see a prowl car with a strange circular antenna, a bank of electronic equipment, and a huge map of the city--parts of an effort to use an oscillator to track down the hoodlum.
However the antihero himself, not the manhunt, is the real focus of the picture. One reason is because Cagney, with his tough-talking vernacular, screwed up face, and quick gestures, is so much fun to watch. But, for me the more significant reason is because the script converts his madness into a mechanism for suspense. Early in the picture, after we've been introduced to the nature of Jarrett's crimes and the outward manifestations of his mental problems, Walsh puts us in the office of Treasury agent Phil Evans (John Archer), the man in charge of the Jarrett investigation. Here Evans gives undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien) Cody Jarrett's psychological case history. A number of key revelations come to light in this profile. First, Jarrett's father went mad and died in an institution. Second, his father's mental problems "rubbed off on Cody." Third, Jarrett is obsessed with having his mother's attention and approval. Finally, Evans predicts that Jarrett's mind will soon "crack apart at the seams" so the agents are on a race against time to nab him. This pseudo-psychiatric explanation does not serve as a solution to the mystery of Cody Jarrett or open the possibility of an eventual recovery a la Virginia Cunningham in The Snake Pit (1948). Instead, it sets up Jarrett's madness as being hereditary, incurable, and dangerous. The scene is crucial to understanding White Heat because it places the character's mental illness at the center of the plot and foreshadows the outcome of the story. Jarrett's imminent psychotic breakdown is predictable and inevitable. We know that he's going to explode at some point in the picture but the question is, when will he go off? The gangster has become a living time bomb, tick, tick, tick, and we're kept in suspense waiting for him to go boom. Hitchcock himself couldn't have done it any better.
"Maybe I am nuts." Elements of horror and expressionism--dark shapes, confining spaces, angular lines, Cagney's maniacal grin--fuel the terrific payoff of White Heat.