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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 It is a funereal salute to a mythic figure retreating into history, a horror story about an outdated evil lurking in the shadows, trying to navigate a world that no longer has a place for it.

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