White Heat

White Heat

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White Heat

White Heat clearly belongs within Shatzs category of genres of order.
How far do you agree with this statement?

This is an exiting essay to write for a number of reasons. For one it
is an honour to follow in the footsteps of Raul Walsh understanding the
motivations that brought him to direct White Heat in the way he did it.

For another reason is wonderful having the possibility to describe it
through the Shatz^s module that can describe perfectly every aspect of
a selected movie. Because it is essentially a narrative system, a film
genre can be examined in terms of its fundamental structural
components: plot, character, setting, thematics and so on. Shatz
divided Hollywood film genres in two main categories, these are
distinguished by completely different characteristics. As he said:
^Each genre represents a distinct problem-solving strategy that
repeatedly addresses basic cultural contradictions^ (Shatz, 1948: 34).

He defined certain genres like screwball comedy, family melodrama,
musical and so on as rites of integration. Those films are centred upon
a doubled or collective her! o set into a ^civilised^ space, the main
problems are emotional and the resolution is always by love. Other
genres centred on an individual male such as Western, gangster,
detective, etc. appertain to the genre of order category. The
protagonist (individual male) ^is the focus of dramatic conflicts
within a setting of contested, ideologically instable space. Conflicts
within these genres are externalised, translated into violence, and
usually resolved through the elimination of some threat to the social
order^ (Shatz, 1948: 34). At the end of the film the protagonist
always leaves the contested space either by his departure or death and
he always maintains his individuality and he doesn^t learn about values
and lifestyle of the community. The principal thematics within this
genre are the mediation-redemption, the male macho code, isolated
self-reliance and utopia-as-promise. White Heat is a classic gangster
and was directed, as I said, by Raul Walsh in 1949. It stands at the
crux between the 1930^s gangster movies and the post^war film noir. The
plot is briefly this: James Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a psychotic who
dreams of being on "top of the world". Inadvertently leaving clues
behind after a railroad heist, Jarrett becomes the target of federal
agents, which send an undercover agent (O^Brien) to infiltrate the
Jarrett gang. While Cody sits in prison on a deliberately trumped-up
charge (he confesses to one crime to provide him an alibi for the
railroad robbery), he befriends Fallon (O^Brien), who poses as a
hero-worshipping hood who's always wanted to work with Jarrett. Busting
out of prison with Fallon, Jarrett regroups his gang to mastermind a

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"Trojan Horse" armoured car robbery. The crime goes off without a hitch
until Jarrett discovers that Fallon is a cop. >From the film^s opening
title shot of the locomotive pulsing towards the camera out of the dark
tunnel, until the final apocalyptic explosion that destroys the hero,
this film is filled with flourishes of camera movements, cutting and
composition clearly belonging to the most classic gangster. The sense
of locale evoked by Walsh is, at my eyes, quite contemporary, making
imaginative use of tourist courts and drive-in movie theatres. The
signs of modernity are everywhere (most obviously in the ^scientific^
surveillance techniques bay the police to track Jarrett), and add to
the sense that the tragic figure of the gangsters has outlived his day.

The obvious brutality and emotional shock tactics of White Heat are
striking even to present-day audiences. Jarrett kills anyone who
challenges or crosses him; he indiscriminately kills cops and his own
gang members with equal disregard. At the beginning of the film one of
the engineers overheads Cody^s name, Cody shoots him, and later a!
ssigns one of his men to kill a gang member who was accidentally burned
during the robbery and cannot travel with the gangsters. In this film
James Cagney acts one of the most maniacal, yet complexed ever
gangster. Probably the ^white heat^ of the title refers in part to the
debilitating headaches Cody suffers; he describes them as feeling like
a buzzsaw in his brain. Jarrett^s migraine attacks and insane rages
clearly equate his mental condition and his sociopathic profession. Yet
the film plays out Cody^s psychosis quite astutely in the determinant
relationship of the film^his exaggerated attachment to his mother.

Although accompanied by his very nice, but ultimately duplicitous
bride, Cody ignores her in favour of Ma Jarrett, advisor and comforter
to her only son, and who never lives his side until he is taken to
prison. As Shatz said: ^Not only Cody^s pathological state provide a
rationale for his aberrant behaviour, it also exonerates society from
any responsibility for h! is criminality. We learn that his law father
had been confined in a mental institution and had died of similar
seizures. As the narrative develops, it becomes increasingly obvious
that Cody is willing to gamble with death because he assumes the same
fate that had destroyed his father awaits him^ (Shatz, 1948: 108). I
think that there might be a misunderstanding about White Heat^s clear
belonging to Shatz^s category of ^genres of order^. All signs of
^genre of order^ are related in some kind to the film that is one of
the 40^s latest gangster movies. We cannot expect from White Heat the
same plot of other gangster films. First it would be very boring, and
second this movie was filmed after the war, during a different
historical moment compared to its predecessors. From my point of view
White Heat is the classical product of what Shatz called ^genre
evolution^. As Warshow puts in: ^Variation is absolutely necessary to
keep the type from becoming sterile; we don^t want to see the same
movie over and over again, only the same form^ (Warshow, 1962: 147).

This is a clear gangster movie and Jarrett is the ^social animal^
gangster hero. Making a comparison between earlier gangster movies,
there could be a bit of confusion on four characteristic of film^s
structure: the hero figure, the settin! g, the conflict and the macho
code. On one hand, everything indicates that Cody Jarrett is the hero
but on the other hand Hank Fallon, the cop, could be seen as the final
hero. He goes undercover in the prison to gain Jarrett^s confidence and
lead him to the gas chamber. Exploiting Jarrett^s psychological
weakness, Fallon manages to partially fill the emotional void left when
Cody finds out his mother has been killed (a schene which provides the
film^s emotional peak, when upon hearing the notice Jarrett freaks in
the prison mess hall). I think that O^Brien, as Shatz says, is clearly
intended to counterbalance Cagney/Jarrett^s antisocial posture Walsh^s
characterisation of him tips the scale toward the criminal forces
(Shatz, 1948: 109), nothing more. He is not the hero; he doesn^t dye as
the hero. Jarrett does: realising his betrayal by Fallon, and after a
hopeless battle with the police he reaches the top of a big tank filled
with something unknown, but very, very explosive! , he fires his
pistol into the drum shouting ^I made it Ma, top of the world^. The
white hot explosion, which follows not only marks Jarrett^s ascension
to the tragic, but equates his madness with the end of the world, is
the classical sign of the figurative demise of the classic gangster
hero. White heat is clearly set in a contested space where, as Shatz
said: ^forces of social order and anarchy are locked in an epic and
unending struggle^ (Shatz, 1948: 83), although is represented in a
different way than his predecessors, he appertains to the ^rural
gangsters^. It is clearly expressed in the first part of the film: the
train comes out from the tunnel in an open rural space. Anyway we can
partially find the gangster^s urban milieu in the prison and in the
final scenes where Jarrett has to fight to reach his goals in smaller
spaces than the rest of the film. Misunderstanding the film ^conflict^
could be quite simple: Jarrett is mad, the conflict could be seen as
internal be! cause of his migraines that are connected to his mother:
at one point on of the agents explains that Jarrett used to fake his
headaches to attract his mother^s attention. I suppose that the film^s
main conflict results in the end internalised but very violent: Jarrett
internal conflict is spread out in his violent actions and manners.

Jarrett^s insanity is an other variation introduced to the macho code
by Walsh. On one hand Jarrett is the macho and Cagney delivered an
incredible credibility to his character. He is rude, he treats his wife
as a ^woman^: he assures her ^You^d look good in a shower curtain^;
punches a lackey who had left the radio on and tells him, ^if the
radio^s dead, it^s gonna have company^; he locks a double-crossing
prison member in a car trunk and then gives him: ^a little air^. On the
other hand Cagney can also alternate Jarrett^s macho being to his
migraine attacks in a wonderful way. Each headache attack increases
his excessive vulnerability towards t! he most non-macho aspect of the
Hollywood gangster: his mother. In conclusion I guess that White Heat
is probably one of the few gangster movies that tend to shake towards
^genre of integration^ category, but I think that belongs within
Shatz^s category of ^genres of order^.


Shatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres, 1948

St. James Press. The movie Guide, 1990
Internet: http://www.thenwage.com

Warshow, Robert. The immediate experience, 1962
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