Thursday, October 13, 2016
So I've been watching a lot of movies, but haven't had time to write anything about them. Who ever thought when I started this thing that I would actually have busy periods? Definitely not me. But since I do love noir-ish thrillers, White Heat was one of the ones I was looking forward to. And it didn't disappoint, although I admit I was confused about the title until the end. The foreshadowing in the chase through the chemical plant was definitely my "Ah-ha!" moment. This film is kind of the Trope Codifier for "Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas", and it's a major strength of this film that Mama is just as bad as Sonny. A lot of movies now seem afraid to go down the route of having criminal women actually seeming to enjoy crime, which is so odd in a Hayes Code era film. Well... none of the ladies prosper, but Verna is allowed to be taken in adultery and commit murder and get off with an arrest, and Ma Jarrett is allowed to order cold-blooded murder and have a deeply uncomfortable relationship with her murderous gangster son, and while she gets whacked for it, this skirts awfully close to the Pre-Code "bad woman". There was an article the other day on Buzzfeed suggesting that the recent spate of murderous women in movies are a reaction to postfeminism and women reacting in anger to patriarchy: effectively suggesting that when women go bad, it's men at fault. That's probably one of the reason I really love these noirs and gangster films. If the woman has any agency (and lots of women were working in scripts and story pitching in those days, so many of them did), then she is not a sort of passive thing that only kills and steals because men made her do it. She does it because she enjoys it. I'll touch on this more in The Maltese Falcon, since Brigid O'Shaughnessy really embodies this actively bad woman, but Ma Jarrett and Verna certainly don't start committing crimes because of men. Cody Jarrett himself is pretty fun to watch. They're trying to go for a character study of a deranged mind, and considering that psychology was still in a fairly primitive state, they don't do that bad a job. He's more a paranoiac with violent outbursts and a massive inferiority complex than the "psychopath" that he gets labelled in the film. Also, there's refreshingly few suggestions that he's purely a criminal because he's the product of "insanity" - just that it makes his motivations harder to understand. Again, not perfect from a mental health perspective, but not bad for 1949, especially since we're still getting it terribly wrong in movies.
Really one of the central questions of the movie is the question as to whether Cody Jarrett is a criminal because he wants to be a criminal, or did Ma Jarrett push him towards it? While he's very protective of his mother, and her showdown with Big Ed is not portrayed as something she did often, she does operate as the brains of the operation enough to make that a pretty big question. Cody's motivations to Vic are consistently that he wants to make his Ma proud, even if she's dead and gone. And again, I really like that as a change of pace. Right now it's always a nasty man pushing a woman to commit crimes, and a lot of the less good film noirs have a sexy woman pushing a man to crime, so an old woman pushing her son to commit crimes is actually pretty fun.
Overall, I'd say watch this one if you like thrillers or film noirs. Not just because James Cagney is always worth watching, but because this movie is fascinating. It certainly deserves its place as one of the best gangster movies of all time.