Marlon Brando gets a lot of credit for revolutionizing screen acting with his performance as Stanley Kowalski in “actors’ director” Elia Kazan’s 1951 A Streetcar Named Desire. After five AFI specials, one could reasonably argue that his reputation as the lynchpin between the era of Nelson Eddy and the era of Edward Norton has been etched in stone. And so it’s sort of ironic to consider the possibility that James Cagney’s last truly iconic performance in the post-gangster era pastiche White Heat (directed by Raoul Walsh, not exactly the type of director whose reputation was built on a fastidious fixation on the Actors Studio ethic) predates the stripped-down implosiveness of Brando’s display of pectoral scratches and flubbed inflection by two full years.
Cagney (whose years were finally and discernibly catching up with him, and seemingly all gathering within his much more melonlike head) plays the unhinged Cody Jarrett, a mid-level criminal mastermind who’s a big enough threat to have a fat F.B.I. record, but small and fallible enough to still depend on the psychological (and suggestively sexual) support of his devoted mother. As Walsh’s film opens, Jarrett is executing a train heist with a small clan of almost-inept henchmen, all of whom seem capable of sullenly reminding Jarrett of the size of their cut and inadvertently taunting his slouching sense of masculinity. Their slovenly indifference to anything but the payoff results in a sloppy heist that only goes downhill from the moment one poor stooge gets his face exfoliated by a busted steam engine. One of the mugs mentions Jarrett’s name while he’s holding two crusty train conductors at gunpoint, and just as soon as one of the two geezers shoots his mouth off about the slip, a two-bit holdup becomes a bloody, homicidal crime spree, forcing the clan to hole up in a remote cabin with no fire in the fireplace (the smoke will attract attention) and no shortage of sparks between Jarrett’s floozy wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) and his flinty-featured Ma. At one point, Jarrett collapses in agony on the floor (he has chronic headaches that, one character later explains, were his only means of attracting his mother’s attention as a kid) and is hoisted upon Ma’s lap for a sinister neck massage.
Walsh’s characterization of Ma as a filial lamprey, driving her son batty with the uncontrollable power of her love and her surreptitiously emasculating prods for Jarrett to make it to the “top of the world” may provide actress Margaret Wycherly with a spitfire role (check out the smug expression on her face as she evades three cop cars on her way home from buying her son strawberries), but it’s also nothing more than dime novel psychological hooey, and a far too hasty peek into Jarrett’s twisted mental state. The Oedipal overtones of the relationship don’t pay off until Jarrett goes behind bars (surrendering to the police for a minor heist that would also conveniently provide him an alibi for the botched train robbery) and unwittingly befriends an undercover cop planted as a mole to spy on Jarrett in the hopes that he’ll make some verbal slip-up that will implicate him in the murders he’s committed.
Once again, the most denigrated angle of a Walsh picture is the perception of his ostensible disinterest in the motivation of his “good” characters, and Edmond O’Brien’s portrayal of the undercover inmate “Vic Pardo” is no exception. Without bothering to quote Manny Farber again, I’ll merely counter that O’Brien plays as crucial a role to the film’s success as a cornerstone of Cagney iconography as Cagney’s own bravura tantrums in the mess hall upon learning of his mother’s death. To accept the film’s stabs at Freudianism, take note of the transference of custodial duties between Ma and Pardo in the scene in which Jarrett collapses in the middle of the jailhouse assembly line. Pardo drags Jarrett behind a set of shelves and pulls the writhing mass of shaved nerve-endings up to his lap, urgently massaging the back of his neck in a shot that immediately recalls the earlier moment of familial lust when Ma invites Jarrett onto her lap. It’s over nearly as soon as it started (I can only presume that in those days the Production Code set a strict limit to the number of seconds two males’ bare skin could be in direct contact), but the psychological shift informs the crux of the final betrayal, when Jarrett learns of Pardo’s true identity and nearly dissolves into bitter crying jag. White Heat‘s ultimate message: love’s a bitch…even crypto-incestuous love.