Arthur “Cody” Jarrett (James Cagney) has a question:
“Supposin’, supposin’ you wanted to push in a place like Fort Knox and, ah, grab yourself a couple of tons of gold. What’s the toughest thing about a job like that?”“Gettin’ inside the joint,” one crony suggests.
“A silver dollar for the gentleman in the balcony. Right on the button, gettin’ in. Which brings me to a story Ma used to tell me when I was a kid, a story about a horse. Way back, there was a whole army tryin’ to knock over a place called Troy, and gettin’ nowhere fast. Couldn’t even put a dent in the walls. And one morning, one morning the people of Troy wake up, look over the walls, and the attacking army disappeared. Men, boats, the works. Takin’ a powder. But they left one thing after them — a great big wooden horse. And according to Ma —”And there the scene ends. Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) is Cody’s ultimate authority, his ultimate consolation, his muse. “And according to Ma”: the fall of Troy is her story.
This bit of dialogue is from White Heat (dir. Raoul Walsh, 1949), the best Cagney film I’ve seen. White Heat makes fascinating the sheer drudgery of crime: planning routes, designating drivers, packing, unpacking, checking the time. It’s a film with something for everyone: a great train robbery, a morgue scene, snappy police work (teletype machines, car phones, radio transmitters, wall maps), spooky facial bandages, a car chase, vast prison interiors, an explosive ending. Best of all are the film’s breathtakingly twisted relationships. Only ten minutes into the film, Jarrett seeks his mother’s lap to be comforted. His relationship with his snoring, spitting wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) is a mess of physical and emotional tyranny: there is room for only one true romance in his life. His moments of sudden violence, toward Verna and others, take us into the realm of pathology.
White Heat pairs well with other Cagney films: The Public Enemy (dir. William A. Wellman, 1931) and Angels with Dirty Faces (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1938) are the obvious choices. To my mind though, the ideal partner for White Heat is not a Cagney film but Walsh’s High Sierra (1941). If White Heat gives us the gangster as psychotic killer, Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of bank-robber Roy Earle gives us the gangster as damaged saint. Earle heals the lame (or at least covers the bill) and inspires devoted followers, one of whom unwittingly betrays him, one of whom weeps for him. The two films together are a fine introduction to the fascinating and repellent figure of the criminal in American screen culture.