The Last Gangster: James Cagney in WHITE HEAT (Warner Brothers 1949)


When James Cagney burst onto the screen in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, a star was born. Cagney’s machine gun delivery of dialog, commanding screen presence, and take-no-shit attitude made him wildly popular among the Depression Era masses, if not with studio boss Jack Warner, with whom Cagney frequently battled over salary and scripts that weren’t up to par. Films like LADY KILLER , THE MAYOR OF HELL , and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES made Cagney the quintessential movie gangster, but after 1939’s THE ROARING TWENTIES he hung up his spats and concentrated on changing his image. Ten years later, Cagney returned to the gangster film in WHITE HEAT, turning in one of his most memorable performances as the psychotic Cody Jarrett.

Cagney is older and meaner than ever as Jarrett, a remorseless mad-dog killer with a severe mother complex and more than a touch of insanity. Jarrett has frequent debilitating headaches brought on by some unnamed trauma that only Ma can soothe. The actor is an untamed hurricane in this role, swaggering one minute, having a complete meltdown when he gets news of Ma’s death the next. He’s at his best when he’s totally unhinged, cold-bloodedly ventilating the car  trunk containing a would-be traitor with bullets, knocking spouse Verna off her chair, and the spectacular fiery finale where his madness engulfs him as much as the flames, delivering that immortal “Top of the world” line with gusto. Cagney’s Cody Jarrett is dangerous and unpredictable, a man to be feared, and that thread of fear permeates the film.

The women in Cody’s life say a lot about the kind of man he is. Margaret Wycherly is chilling as Ma, a far cry from her loving mother in SERGEANT YORK. Based loosely on Ma Barker, she’s been a criminal all her life, and has groomed her boy to be as ruthless as herself, if not more so. Virginia Mayo as Cody’s wife Verna is just as much a sociopath as he is, a duplicitous woman without morals who doesn’t hesitate to take up with Cody’s lieutenant Big Ed when her man goes to jail. Verna will lie and backstab to get her own way, but she’s deathly afraid of Cody’s wrath, letting Big Ed pay for Ma’s demise even though she pulled trigger that killed the older woman… shot in the back, no less! Cody and Verna are a match made in hell, and Virginia Mayo, who was one of Warner’s biggest stars at the time, received above the title billing just below Cagney. Both should’ve been nominated for Oscars.

Edmond O’Brien  plays T-Man Hank Fallon, who goes undercover as convict Vic Pardo to try and gain Cody’s trust. It’s a tricky part, but the always reliable O’Brien pulls it off. Steve Cochran is his usual menacing self as Big Ed… just not as menacing as Cagney! Another old reliable, Fred Clark , is on hand as ‘The Trader’, brains behind Cody’s crimes. And the Familiar Face brigade is out in full force – say, isn’t that young Robert Foulk? Omigosh, there’s Claudia “ROBOT MONSTER” Barrett! That guy looks like the butler in SON OF  FRANKENSTEIN! I could go on, but you get the idea, so happy hunting!


Raoul Walsh’s muscular, masculine direction makes WHITE HEAT even tougher. Walsh had success in the gangster genre before, helming Cagney’s THE ROARING TWENTIES and Bogart’s HIGH SIERRA, but he was one of those equally adept in any genre: silent classics like THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and WHAT PRICE GLORY, period pieces (THE BOWERY, THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE), westerns (THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, COLORADO TERRITORY), war dramas (DESPERATE JOURNEY , BATTLE CRY). This is the third of four films Walsh would make with Cagney, and a fine coda to the gangster cycle. WHITE HEAT is a classic in every sense of the word, a movie that absolutely lives up to its reputation.

 

 

 

Folsom Prison Blahs: INSIDE THE WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON (Warner Brothers 1951)

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Filmed on location inside the infamous prison, and with a testosterone-loaded cast led by Steve Cochran  , David Brian, Ted de Corsia, and Philip Carey  , I expected INSIDE THE WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON to be slam-bang entertainment along the lines of BRUTE FORCE . Well, not so much. The trouble’s not with the cast, nor the atmospheric direction of Crane Wilbur. It’s Wilbur’s script that commits the cardinal sin of any action film: too much talk!

Even the prison itself talks, narrating the opening credits: “I am Folsom Prison. At one time they called me Bloody Folsom. And I earned it…”, intones the prison, voiced by Charles Lung (an appropriate name for someone who talks to much!). The movie begins with an attempted jailbreak, put down by sadistic Warden Rickey (de Corsia) and his thugs. He then ratchets up the punishment, making life even more miserable for the cons, until new Captain of the Guards Mark Benson (Brian) is assigned by the institution’s board of directors. Benson’s a reformer who witnesses the deplorable conditions and implements policy changes designed to rehabilitate the men. The warden goes along at first, but instructs one of his trusted sergeants (Edward Norris of THE SULTAN’S DAUGHTER  ) to keep his eyes and ears open.

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When con Red Pardue (Carey), up for parole soon, rats out an escape attempt by Ferretti (young William Campbell  in one of his first roles),  the warden puts him back out in the yard, to Benson’s chagrin. Red is an explosives expert and needed to finish a job. Ferretti offers Tinker (Dick Wesson) $300 to make sure Red never leaves Folsom, and in a tense scene, Tinker sabotages Red with his own dynamite, blowing him to kingdom come!

Benson blames Warden Rickey for Red’s murder, and resigns in disgust. Rickey now has full control of the prison once again, and reinstates his brutal reign of terror. The cons, led by lifer Chuck (Cochran), make a daring takeover of their cellblock, and this is where the action begins to quickly pick up. Unfortunately, it just as quickly fizzles out, and the damn prison starts talking again to wrap things up!

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Crane Wilbur had been around since the dawn of cinema, having been the hero of 1914’s sensational serial THE PERILS OF PAULINE. Returning to the stage, he wrote and toured with an updated version of THE BAT, later filming it with Vincent Price in 1959. He’s probably best known for his screenplay on another Price shocker, HOUSE OF WAX. Wilbur wrote and/or directed movies in every genre, from prison dramas (ALCATRAZ ISLAND, CRIME SCHOOL) to film noir (HE WALKED BY NIGHT, THE PHENIX CITY STORY  ) , exploitation (HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS), juvenile delinquents (THE DEVIL ON WHEELS), science fiction (MYSTERIOUS ISLAND). He penned two of Boris Karloff’s Warner vehicles (WEST OF SHANGHAI, THE INVISIBLE MENACE) and Price’s HOUSE OF WAX follow-up THE MAD MAGICIAN. Crane Wilbur’s last film HOUSE OF WOMEN was a distaff version of his many prison flicks. He died in 1973.

Besides the tough guy actors I’ve already mentioned, Paul Picerni, Danny Arnold, Tom Dugan, Anthony George, Damian O’Flynn, George Wallace, and Sheb Wooley all add their machismo as various cons and guards. Anyone who’s seen the biopic WALK THE LINE knows this is the film Johnny Cash was watching which inspired him to write his hit song “Folsom Prison Blues”. The Man in Black like the movie a lot. As for me, I thought it was okay, but could have been so much better. I prefer Cash’s country classic, so here it is:

 

First Shot Fired: THE DEADLY COMPANIONS (Pathe’-America 1961)

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Maverick filmmaker Sam Peckinpah got his start in television, writing and directing for Westerns such as GUNSMOKE, THE RIFLEMAN, and HAVE GUN- WILL TRAVEL. In 1959, he created the series THE WESTERNER, starring Brian Keith as a drifter named Dave Blassingame, noted for its extreme (for the time) violence. When Keith was cast as the lead in THE DEADLY COMPANIONS, he suggested his friend Peckinpah as director. This was Peckinpah’s first feature film, and the result is a flawed but interesting film which has brief flourishes of the style he later perfected in THE WILD BUNCH and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.

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Keith is again a drifter, this time an ex-Union soldier known only as Yellowleg. He hooks up with a pair of Southern outlaws and they ride to Hila City to rob the bank. They get sidetracked at the saloon when it converts into a church service. Next thing you know, some robbers beat them to the punch in robbing the bank, leading to a shootout. Yellowleg accidentally kills the young son of redheaded dance hall girl Kit, played by none other than Maureen O’Hara (whose brother Charles Fitzsimons was the film’s producer).

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Kit is determined to bury her son in Siringo, located across hostile Apache territory. Yellowleg, feeling guilty, offers to help, but is spurned by Kit. Nevertheless, he and his companions Billy and Turkey, follow along. Billy, who noticed Kit at the barroom sermon, has sexual designs on Kit, who wants no part of him. Yellowleg catches Billy in a rape attempt and, after a fight, sends him away. Turkey, who’s not right in the head, goes with his pal, and Yellowleg and Kit are left to cross the desert alone, battling the heat, the Apaches, and each other.

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Peckinpah plays on his theme of misfits banded together, working from A.S. Fleischman’s screenplay (based on his own novel). Yellowleg has a bum arm, and never takes his hat off, hiding a deep, dark secret. A Rebel soldier once attempted to scalp him, and revenge has fueled him for the past five years. Kit, a prostitute with a bastard son, has been ostracized by the women of Hila City. The only thing she ever truly loved was the boy, now shot dead by Yellowleg. Billy (Steve Cochran) is a good-looking man with a lustful dark side. Chill Wills turns in the best performance as Turkey, an unrepentant criminal who dreams of setting up his own little empire. He’s crazier than a loon, and twice as dangerous. It doesn’t take much to figure out it was Turkey who attempted to scalp Yellowleg during the Civil War.

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The trademark Peckinpah violence is there, not nearly as gory as what was to come, but probably shocking for 1961. The movie’s Arizona locations are vividly filmed by DP William Clothier , noted for his work with John Wayne and John Ford, together and separately. The problem laid in a choppy script, which slowed the film down. Peckinpah demanded script control from then on, and his next film, RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, proved him right. It’s now considered a Western classic, while many critics dismiss THE DEADLY COMPANIONS. It’s worth watching for a look at what the director could accomplish on a low-budget. The four lead actor’s all shine (Maureen even sings the film’s mournful title song!), and Strother Martin and Will Wright offer strong support in minor roles. THE DEADLY COMPANIONS doesn’t get much recognition, but for fans of Sam Peckinpah, it’s required viewing to see the beginning of a controversial but brilliant career.