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“There’s Nobody Left But You”: The Existential Horror at the Heart of White Heat…

Last weekend, on the podcast I co-host called The 250, we discussed James Cagney’s 1949 gangster classic White Heat, with the wonderful Carl Sweeney from The Movie Palace Podcast. I’ve been thinking a lot about the film since, and so had some thoughts I just wanted to jot down.

White Heat is a gangster film, starring James Cagney.

It’s frequently discussed in relation to The Public Enemy, which makes sense. Both White Heat and The Public Enemy are mid-century gangster films starring James Cagney. It also merits comparison to The Roaring Twenties, another gangster film starring James Cagney and directed by Raoul Walsh. There’s a tendency to lump these sorts of films together, to examine them as part of a greater whole. It certainly makes sense in this context. After all, a huge part of the appeal of White Heat at time of release derived from seeing James Cagney playing a gangster once again.

However, there’s something altogether stranger about White Heat. It isn’t a film that fits particularly comfortably into the gangster genre, despite the obvious trappings. James Cagney plays the role of Cody Jarrett, the leader of a vicious gang introduced conducting a train robbery and who go on to plot a chemical plant raid at the climax. There is all manner of betrayal and violence, backstabbing and revenging. There are cops in dogged pursuit of the criminals, while Cody demonstrates that nobody should underestimate him.

Still, there’s something simmering beneath the surface of White Heat. As much as the film follows the structures and conventions of a crime film, it plays more like a melancholy monster movie. It is a funereal salute to a mythic figure retreating into history, a horror story about an outdated evil lurking in the shadows, trying to navigate a world that no longer has a place for it.

There is a reason that Cagney return to the gangster genre was such a big deal. Cagney might have been best known to (or best loved by) the general public for his gangster roles, but he had largely drifted away from them in the years since The Roaring Twenties. Cagney had always seen himself as more of a “song-and-dance man”, to the point that he won his Best Actor Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy. By Cagney’s own admission, he had only taken White Heat as “just another cheapjack job.”

There’s a lot of interesting details about White Heat. The film largely eschews the trappings of wealth and success that define so much of the gangster genre, the opulence and the wealth of the macho fantasy. Cody Jarrett is a successful career criminal who has been operating long enough to have caught the eye of law enforcement, but he largely eschews fancy suits and expensive cars. “Money’s just paper if you don’t spend it,” complains his wife, Verna, at one point. However, Cody lives strictly within his means – favouring modesty and isolation over spectacle and fortune.

In some ways, White Heat seems to contrast Cody’s frugal practicality with the portrayal of “Big Ed.” Ed is a gangster in Cody’s crew, who looks and feels much more like a conventional movie gangster. He refuses to allocate a full share to Cody’s mother, he implicitly offers a more glamourous alternative to Cody for Verna, and he even dresses in much fancier suits than anybody else in the movie around him. Ed is hardly a fully developed character, but he looks and sounds a lot more like a conventional mid-century big screen gangster.

Neither Cody nor White Heat have a lot of time or respect for “Big Ed.” Cody treats his untrustworthy subordinate with open derision. Discussing the henchman’s nickname, Cody loudly explains, “You know why they call him that? Because his ideas are big.” However, White Heat makes it clear that Ed is nothing but an empty (if stylish) suit. Ed doesn’t betray Cody until Cody is locked up in prison. Even then, Ed lacks the courage to murder Cody’s mother. Verna has to kill the old lady, with Ed taking the credit. When Cody escapes prison, Ed presents no real challenge to him.

This characterisation makes a great deal of sense. The Public Enemy had been released in 1931, and The Roaring Twenties had been released in 1939. Those were very different times. Those earlier films had been products of the Great Depression, an era in which many Americans were suffering incredibly financial hardship. There was an incredible divide between rich and poor during the era, with cinema often seen as affordable entertainment for the working class. As such, these gangster fantasies had an understandable appeal.

During the Great Depression, a number of high-profile outlaws managed to invent themselves as celebrities and folk heroes. Bonnie and Clyde positioned themselves as “Depression era Kardashians.” John Dillinger has been described as “an American Robin Hood.” It doesn’t matter that these descriptions might not align with the actual truth. They resonated in mythic terms. At a point where the system seemed to have failed so many hardworking Americans, it was easy see why the public imagination latched on to the idea of those prospering outside the system.

However, times had changed. Even towards the end of the Great Depression, polling suggested that American attitudes towards these sorts of criminals had grown less romantic. More than that, pop culture had moved towards embracing a rigid morality that favoured law enforcement over outlaw. The Keystone cops had been a source of mockery and derision in silent cinema, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation had made conscious in-roads into Hollywood during the middle decades of the century. The Production Code decried that crime on screen should not pay.

James Cagney had starred in G Men for Warner Brothers in 1935, essentially a piece of propaganda for the FBI that was designed to rehabilitate their image. Dragnet launched as a radio show a few months before White Heat hit screens, and would migrate to NBC in 1951. Dragnet would codify the police procedural and create the expectation that audiences sitting at home should be rooting more for the cops than for the criminals. The gangster had competition in the public imagination.

This is obvious in watching White Heat. It is too much to suggest that the film is as invested in the agents chasing Cody Jarrett as it is in the criminal himself, but it is fascinated by their methods. White Heat devotes a considerable amount of its runtime to the mechanics and the procedures of the Treasury, the methodology that Agent Philip Evans uses to track the Jarrett Gang. The film focuses on the use of fingerprints to help identify a body, rudimentary psychological profiling, the use of “the A-B-C method” to track a suspect and even radio triangulation.

The effect of all of this is to suggest that law enforcement is the future. They are better resourced and more technologically advanced than the criminals that they are pursuing, and so it seems inevitable that they will catch Cody. Indeed, it’s notable that Cody’s only viable strategy to avoid a prison sentence at the start of the movie is to surrender himself to law enforcement and serve another (albeit shorter) prison sentence.

With its emphasis on the logical and rational approach adopted by Agent Philip Evans, White Heat offers a vision of the United States emerging from the Second World War. The United States is prosperous, entering a massive economic boom and establishing itself as a global powerhouse. That economic boom is powered by innovation and science. This is most obvious with the development of the atomic bomb, but reflected in smaller scale technological innovations that rippled through all levels of American life.

Indeed, that prosperity arguably brought with it a certain conservatism. If the gangsters of the Great Depression had offered a welcome disruption to a broken status quo, then they were a threatening force after the Second World War. There was an established order to American life in the late forties and into the fifties, a sense that everything was finally falling into place and that any disruptive elements that might possible interfere with the larger harmony needed to be addressed as a serious potential problem – consider the treatment of communists in the period.

While White Heat presents law enforcement as the embodiment of a technologically advanced future, Cody Jarrett is framed as a relic from a lost past. He is introduced orchestrating a daring raid on a train. The sequence is deliberately designed to recall an actual robbery in Oregon in October 1923. The event was dubbed as “the Last Great Train Robbery”, and seen to embody the end of an era. Even without that historical context, the idea of a train robbery seems curiously outdated in the context of a 1949 film. The train robbery is not a gangster movie trope – it’s a western trope.

In this context, it’s perhaps notable that so much of White Heat unfolds in California. The film is not set in familiar gangster movie surroundings like New York or Chicago, and it avoids the sort of heartland settings associated with the “public enemy” era of the outlaw. Instead, Cody Jarrett and his gang operate on the extreme west. They are outlaws that have reached the edge of the American continent. There is a sense that they can only go so far, before the law (and the structures of civilisation) catch up with them.

It’s notable that the climax of White Heat finds Cody all alone in the world. His mother is dead. His wife has betrayed him, repeatedly. His best friend is revealed to be an undercover cop. Even his last loyal associate attempts to surrender himself to the authorities. “You might as well come down, Jarrett,” taunts Evans. “There’s nobody left but you.” Evans is correct here. Cody is the last man standing. He is perhaps the last of his kind.

This gets at one of the most interesting aspects of White Heat. The film consciously frames Cody as a character who seems out of time, even within the outlaw community. There’s a strong sense that times are changing. Cody works with his “manager”, Daniel Winston (known as “the Trader”) who launders the money from Cody’s crimes by exploiting an increasing globalisation. He “ships to Europe, collects both ends.” At the climax of the film, it seems like the Treasury is as happy to have arrested Daniel Winston as to have finally stopped Cody Jarrett.

Even within Cody’s organisation, there are signs of creeping modernity. In an allusion to the infamous Ma Barker, although perhaps more to the legend than the reality, the Jarrett gang is largely overseen by Cody’s mother. When Cody is imprisoned and the gang rebels against his mother, it’s notably his wife Verna who pulls the trigger. It seems like a small acknowledgement of shifting social and cultural norms, the idea that women were playing more active leadership roles in the years following the end of the Second World War.

This idea that Cody himself is something of a relic is reflected in the way that White Heat frames the character. He is presented using the language of horror cinema. He is suggested to be a monster. White Heat presents Cody Jarrett as something unsettling and discomforting, a primal aberration. He is incredibly violent – during the train robbery, he mercilessly guns down two engineers because they happened to overhear his name. More than that, there are times when White Heat feels almost gothic in its sensibilities.

There are times when characters describe Cody in ways that don’t seem human. When Ed laughs off the idea that Cody will avenge the murder of his mother, Verna is quick to warn him, “Cody ain’t human. Fill him full of lead, and he’ll still come at you.” At the climax, as the agents fire round after round into the gangster, even Fallon has to ask, “What’s holding him up?” There’s a recurring and uncomfortable sense that Cody is something more (or something less) than human.

During the train robbery, Zuckie is horrible scarred by a blast of steam. He is taken back to the gang’s hideaway, wrapped in bandages. He looks surprisingly like the protagonist from The Invisible Man. Cody is gripped by horrific migraines, causing him to spasm like a horror movie character undergoing a monstrous transformation. Critic Matt Zolelr Seitz points to another classic monster movie in discussing the film’s iconic finale, which he suggests “is reminiscent of the end of the original Frankenstein where the monster is trapped in a burning windmill that collapses and kills him.”

This sensibility extends beyond Cody himself. Repeatedly, the gang hide in the wilderness. The wind blows loudly through the trees, like a primal or elemental howl. The hideaways themselves look dilapidated and unloved, with boarded up windows and functional furniture. Cody walks through the trees at night, claiming to converse with his deceased mother. At one point, Agent Evans even takes a moment to solemnly contemplate Zuckie’s death mask, a rather morbid curio in the context of the otherwise rational pursuit of Cody Jarrett.

Of course, Cody isn’t actually or literally a monster. However, it’s interesting how much effort White Heat extends into pathologising the character. Cody is presented as a psychological curiousity, a character who does not fit within the confines of ordinary society. Again, this marks a clear departure from the traditional gangster film. Cody is repeatedly analysed and diagnosed as psychologically unstable – an aberration in an otherwise structured and rational world.

To be fair, the manner in which White Heat pathologises Cody Jarrett is decidedly dated, playing into a variety of uncomfortable clichés that say as much about the time as they do about Cody himself. “The only person he’s ever cared about or trusted is his mother,” Evans explains. “No one else has ever made a dent – not even his wife. His mother’s been the prop that’s held him up. He’s got a fierce, psychopathic devotion for her.” In some weird way, this seems to prefigure the “boy’s best friend is his mother” horror that would drive Psycho just over a decade later.

This is something of an uncomfortable and outdated cliché, the suggestion that a man with a strong attachment to his mother (a “mama’s boy”) must by severely psychologically dysfunctional. (It is also a cliché that still has currency with modern audiences, as demonstrated by films like King of Comedy and Joker.) Still, in the context of White Heat, this relationship is used to “other” Cody, to make him seem like a freak or a monster. Indeed, Cagney himself made an effort to play this up, choosing to sit in Margaret Wycherly’s lap to see if they could “get away with” the transgression.

White Heat compounds this dysfunction by leaning into the homoerotic tension that Cody has with criminal Vic Pardo, the alias of undercover agent Hank Fallon. To be fair, a lot of undercover cop stories are laced with implicit homoerotic tension – the idea of double lives, betrayal, uncomfortable intimacy. However, White Heat goes further. When Cody has a panic attack in prison, Pardo physically comforts him – just like his mother. The two share a late evening conversation together in the woods. Cody even suggests a vacation with Pardo, something he never does with Verna.

As with the use of Cody’s closeness to his mother to suggest his psychological dysfunction, there’s a decidedly homophobic subtext to all of this. After all, White Heat was produced at a point where homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. Indeed, White Heat repeatedly suggests that the two are linked. When his mother dies, Cody seems to treat Pardo as a surrogate. He offers Pardo an even split. When Winslow is surprised, Cody clarifies, “I split even with Ma, didn’t I?”

White Heat repeatedly suggests that Cody is too volatile a force to survive into the middle of the twentieth century. Adrian Danks has described White Heat as “a precursor to the cataclysmic and brutal atomic noirs of the 1950s”, and it’s a valid description. Released on the cusp of the fifties, White Heat seems to draw a clear line. On the cusp of this new age, Cody’s insanity is something that belongs in the first half of the century – recalling the industrial devastation of both world wars and even the unfathomable horror of the Holocaust.

These fears simmer through a lot of American cinema of the period. Martin Scorsese would arguably connect text and subtext in Shutter Island, a fifties film noir homage set in a literal psychiatric institution. White Heat fits within that paradigm. Cody confesses to Pardo that his family is familiar with the insides of such institutions. “First it was my old man died kicking and screaming in a nut house,” he admits. “Then my brother.” At certain points, White Heat seems to fear that – left unchecked – Cody might turn the outside world into “a nut house.”

Of course, these fears ran deeper in the context of the late forties and fifties. The dropping of the atomic bomb had radically changed humanity’s understanding of destruction. Although the term “mutual assured destruction” would not be coined until 1962, it was clear to everyone that humanity now held the power to destroy the world. That power came with incredible responsibility, because the misuse of that power could have catastrophic consequences. This fear of that raw and potentially cataclysmic power permeates so much cinema of the time, even in Europe.

Although White Heat never mentions (or even directly alludes to) atomic power, that fear permeates the film. The title seems to reference Cody’s description of his migraines as feeling like “having a red-hot buzz saw inside [his] head.” However, the film repeatedly references heat and fire. Zuckie is burned by steam, and covered in bandages. (It’s an image that recalls some depictions of the victims of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) The film’s climax finds Cody climbing on top of a tank at a chemical plant, and dying in a spectacular (mushroom cloud) explosion.

This ending serves as a counterpoint to the film’s emphasis on the use of technological innovation by the Treasury. Cody is a relic from a bygone age, but he is living in a dangerous time. Cody lives in a moment where there is suddenly so much power and so much potential that his insanity and volatility is more dangerous than it has ever been before. This is perhaps the true horror of White Heat, the anxiety that the recklessness and romance of the classic outlaw archetype might suddenly have dramatic and dire consequences in the postwar era.

As with the films of Alfred Hitchcock, especially Psycho, the horror at the heart of White Heat is existential in nature. The American Century had just begun in earnest, with the United States emerging as the leading global superpower. However, with all of that power and responsibility at its disposal, what happens if the world turns out to be a chaotic and arbitrary place? Psycho suggests monsters lurking in the darkness off the Eisenhower-era interstates, but White Heat suggests a primal chaos waiting to emerge from the shadows of the past.

White Heat is a film about a world that no longer has space for monsters like Cody Jarrett, but which is well aware of the dangers that such insanity poses with the power now at its disposal. Everything burns, and some monsters are perfectly happy to let it. That’s terrifying.

4 Responses

  1. An interesting piece of trivia: Here in Brazil, we have a long tradition of soap operas, as massive as Mexico. One of the biggest of 90’s “novelas”, as we call them, in the majors villain death, recriate the final scene of “White Heat” scene by scene, including the “top of the world” phrase.
    Watched the movie for the first time last week and that realization just blew my mind.

    Also: great article, as always.

    • My podcast co-host had a similar sensation with regard to Tim Burton’s Batman.

      • I came to read this page right for that reason; in my partially-newbie experiences as cinephile, I spotted evident (at least they looked evident to me) similarities between Cody Jarrett’s last fight and Batman’s Axis Chemicals scene, which I started to see as a homage Tim Burton may have paid to White Heat.

        I found your article excellent, too.

      • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed!

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