White Heat (1949)

Raoul Walsh | 1hr 54min

Before there was Norman Bates and his psychotic mother, there was Cody and Ma Jarrett – two halves of one criminal mind, operating illegal schemes from within their small mob and sharing a co-dependent love which stretches our belief in its platonic foundations. Though Cody is married to the wily, blonde Verna and places full trust in his right-hand man, Big Ed, both associates recognise that their respective relationships with him will never approach the same depths as this mother-son bond, which holds sway over virtually every aspect of his life. Perhaps more than anything else, it is this stunted maturity which erodes their faith in him, pushing them to eliminate Ma when her back is turned and thereby robbing him of his greatest source of comfort. The law’s concerted efforts to track him down may be directly responsible for Cody’s eventual downfall, but it is only when Ma is finally out of the picture that he finds himself truly defeated.

Not that Cody would ever admit that. He’s on his way to the “Top of the world,” according to his Ma, and her early death only sees him cling closer to that idea than ever. White Heat might almost be a tragedy if its central character was not such a despicable human being, though with an actor like James Cagney in this role commanding a heavy, magnetic screen presence, Cody begs for at least some of the audience’s pity. With a jaw that juts out from a scowling face and the physique of a stocky brawler, Cagney’s gangster looks like a tougher, more violent take on the classic Wellesian antihero, not unlike Charles Foster Kane in his great ambition, or George Amberson Minafer in his Freudian inclinations. For Cody, it is not one fatal flaw earning his place among the greatest cinematic characters of the 1940s, but a whole multitude of them, each one tied back to that insecure, volatile ego which places his mother on a pedestal and punishes anyone who even hints at threatening their unhinged relationship.

Great staging of bodies and faces, placing Cody and Ma in their own shared world.
A well-placed long dissolve over Cody and Ma’s faces, visually and psychologically binding the two together.

Raoul Walsh’s slick direction is well-suited to the abundant subtext of this twisted dynamic, blocking his actors in compositions that insulate Cody and Ma in their own lonely world, and later blending close-ups of both their faces in a well-timed long dissolve. This childlike bond brings a surprising layer of vulnerability to an otherwise harsh character, especially when Cody finds himself dolefully separated from his Ma in prison. The scene in which he learns of her death from his fellow inmates was originally going to take place in a small chapel due to the cheaper setup, but Walsh’s push for the mess hall set filled with hundreds of extras brilliantly pays off as the humiliating location for his hysterical breakdown. As the camera follows the whispers along a table in one long parallel tracking shot, we anxiously anticipate the reaction that awaits it at the other end, where Cody’s agonising screams and sobs finally destroy the hardened image he had cultivated over the years.

Cody’s breakdown upon learning of Ma’s death is set against this backdrop of hundreds of extras, blowing his emotions up to a magnificent scale.

As a crafter of truly spectacular set pieces such as these, Walsh expertly matches the huge emotions of his characters with kinetic pacing and an impressive coordination of action, bookending White Heat with a pair of robberies that, on some level, both send Cody soaring to the “top of the world”. The first is a resounding success for his gang, offering this mobster film a hint of the western genre as they hold up a train, kill its crew, and leave with their earnings, setting an extraordinary level of ruthlessness in its characterisations and tightness in its editing. The final set piece closing out White Heat is even more explosive, as Cody sets out to infiltrate a chemical plant with a tanker full of his men to steal its payroll, while unwittingly collaborating with an undercover police officer, Hank, whose plans steadily derail his own.

A superb depth of field in Walsh’s blocking, building excellent character dynamics via the levels in his frame.

Some brisk intercutting and a swift barrage of long dissolves efficiently narrow the police in on Cody’s “Trojan tanker” while this narrative drives towards its climax, and when the two sides of the law finally converge at the plant, Walsh makes remarkable use of its labyrinthine layout and industrial architecture to stage the thrilling final showdown. From high and low angles alike, frames are crowded by winding, metal pipes, and Walsh exhilaratingly sends Cody hurtling through offices and corridors, until he reaches a field of gas storage tanks.

A barrage of long dissolves in a montage driving towards the climactic conclusion.
An excellent use of industrial architecture in the final pursuit between cops and gangsters, combining thrillingly staged action with shadows and sharp editing.

Though he is the last man standing and finds himself surrounded by police, Cody is still dementedly giggling as he climbs one of the globe-shaped structures, elevating himself above everyone else. “Made it Ma! Top of the world!” he madly shouts as he shoots at the tank beneath his feet, going out in a literal blaze of glory. The following line which virtually explains the metaphor to those who missed it is an unfortunate misstep, though it only barely dulls the impact of this dazzling finale. In Walsh’s tight construction of this marvellously compelling character study, White Heat recognises that such ambitious, extravagant grandeur will only ever be fleeting for men as vile and deeply troubled as Cody Jarrett.

One of the great endings of the 1940s – violently and explosively poetic.

White Heat is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Jour de Fête (1949)

Jacques Tati | 1hr 26min

Before Monsieur Hulot took over as Jacques Tati’s silent character of choice in the 50s, we had François the postman – not quite as a distinct a comedic icon as the lurching, overgrown child that would appear in his later films, but still operating on a clever enough level to send up western modernity through a Keaton-esque, full-bodied commitment to visual gags. As the small French village where he resides is setting up its Bastille Day celebrations in Jour de Fête, talk of America’s efficient mailing system has also arrived in town, and with it, François finds a new challenge: keep up with the times, or be left behind.

Along with being a skilled director of silent comedy, Tati has also proven himself to be a master of magnificent set pieces, reflected in the architecture of his later films ranging from quirky sculptures to monstrous dioramas. Perhaps he did not yet have the budget for these fantastic displays of visual grandeur, or maybe he had not developed his own artistic voice yet to understand their potential, but at times Jour de Fête feels slightly limited without bouncing Tati’s hilariously physical performance off these constructions. As it is, what we get is something a little more modest in ambition, yet also remarkably resourceful, making jokes out of a fence coming between a drunk François and his bike while he tries to mount it, or later a boom gate incidentally lifting it up out of sight.

Who would have guessed how many gags you could get out one bike – Tati’s style of comedy is endlessly inventive.

In true silent fashion, dialogue is kept to a minimum so that music and sound effects can take over, leading us lightly through comedic episodes with accordions, vibraphones, trumpets, and a chamber of jovial strings. Within this soundscape, François is given his own motif in the form of the rattling bike bell, announcing his presence like his own whimsical, ringing musical theme.

Though he is hopelessly devoted to his neighbours and is always sure to offer a helping hand wherever he can, François is also the butt of many jokes, and thus feels that he has something to prove. With the American post office setting an example of efficiency in the western world, he takes it on himself to match their productivity on his own, leading into a directly Buster Keaton-inspired sequence that allows Tati the chance to prove his own talents as both an incredibly physical actor and director.

François rides in with his bicycle, and emerges on the balcony a few second later as the restaurant owner tosses it out – all playing out in a single wide shot. This isn’t a silent film, but Tati is very much following the footsteps of Keaton and Chaplin with these kinds of visual gags using different levels and doorways creatively with minimal cutting.

In superbly staged wide shots we watch a series of elaborate pratfalls play out, each one escalating with François’ struggle to keep up with himself, overtaken by the “American style” of mail delivery. When one recipient doesn’t take their letter in time, he simply leaves it wedged underneath their horse’s tail before speeding off again, and at one point it looks as if his bike takes on a life of its own, zooming down the street while he is left chasing it from behind.

Much like Keaton, Tati puts his full body into his stunts as he rides full-speed into a river.

The sheer velocity with which Tati moves through his gags in this fantastic sequence can only be halted with a stunt that sees François ride full speed over the edge of the road into a river, finally capping his mad dash with an obstacle he cannot overcome. There may be plenty of cynical directors out there who dissect the industrial march of capitalistic progress with a much sharper blade, but Tati has no such aspirations with this sort of subject matter. In Jour de Fête, the most we can do is point and laugh at the absurdity of such grand ambitions, before falling back on the reliable affability of one humble postman.

Tati’s camera dollying forward into this window frame as the fair leaves town, delivering a sweet farewell.

Jour de Fête is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and available to rent or buy on iTunes.