White Heat (1949)

Get Up Stand Tall, Put Your Back Up Against the Wall

To date, White Heat remains the only instance in which my first encounter with an actor instantly turned me into a fan. Typically for me, I become a fan of a performer over a period of time and after seeing a number of their films. Not James Cagney though. The scene early during White Heat in which Cody Jarrett gets a headache and needs to be comforted by his mother, my instant reaction was, “I need to watch any movie with this guy I can get my hands on”. I have no hesitation putting Cagney’s performance as Cody Jarrett in my ten favourite movie performance of all time. At this point in my movie watching life I had never seen an actor so on fire, so electrifying. His twitchy mannerisms, machine gun way of speaking his violence against women and possibly above all, his mother complex, exposing an unsettling, adorable side. Like wow, you do not want to be stuck in an elevator with this guy. I would later discover White Heat came after the classic Warner Bros cycle of gangster movies, making White Heat a nostalgic revival of the genre, making Cody and his mother products of a different age. Margaret Wycherly as Ma Jarrett is the next great stand out performance for me, a character who appears as the stereotypical “aw shucks” mother common in classic Hollywood, but her attitude could not be more different.

Boy is this movie fast paced. White Heat is one of the few times my heart my beating so much out of how exciting the movie was. When the film was over I had the closest I could fell to that sense you get after coming off a rollercoaster, expect to get it from watching a movie. I feel that’s the best way, to sum up White Heat, a rollercoaster of violence and emotions. Even the scenes of police officers discussing Cody’s psychological tendencies and the examination of their late 1940’s tracking techniques are riveting, but they do save the best for last. The Warner gangster movies ended with incredible final scenes with brilliant closing lines, White Heat’s may be the best of them all. I question if I’ll ever experience such a high level of movie watching euphoria on a first time viewing again.

Mister Roberts (1955)

No One Can Succeed Like Mister Roberts

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Fonda, Cagney, Powell, Lemon. What more could you ask for? Being a huge fan of all four actors, for me personally, Mister Roberts may be the greatest accumulation of actors ever; thus I will try my best to contain my inner fanboy. Not only do all four play interesting characters but they all share such interesting relationships between each other. Fonda and Cagney share a Bugs Bunny/ Yosemite Sam-like dynamic with Cagney being a frustrated old captain (possibly with a Napoleon complex) in a position of power but with no control over the taller Fonda stepping over everything he does.

Jack Lemon’s Ensign Pulver, on the other hand, hates the Captain but out of total shock, the captain likes the Ensign. I find this dynamic particular funny as I can relate to that situation of being admired by someone you dislike. However, I also relate to the character of Mister Roberts himself in his predicament of being stuck in a rut of which he is desperate to escape from; wanting to leave the navy cargo boat and be right in the action of the Second World War. The entire film effortlessly combines tragedy and comedy with no better example of this being the final scene itself in which the film transitions from the tragedy upon the characters discovering that Mr. Roberts has been killed in action to one more final pay off from a recurring gag; one of my favourite movie endings ever.

The claustrophobic intimacy of the ship, as well as the simply superb dialogue and performances, makes the dialogue-heavy scenes so engaging. Even with two directors on the project which could have spelled disaster, the film manages to come out perfectly fine rather than ending up like a Frankensteinian stitch up. The other scene which always stuck out to me was at the beginning of the film when the men are attempting to get a glimpse of women in a shower and going crazy as hell over it. Would men have the same reaction today because of the internet? Was the prospect of seeing a naked woman more thrilling back then?

Mister Roberts would be William Powell’s final film although one of Jack Lemon’s first, so I see the film as a passing of the torch between two generations of comedic actors. Originally Powell retired after appearing in How to Marry a Millionaire but decided to appear in Mister Roberts after reading the script. A much, much better choice of final film in which he shows that even in this stage of his career the man was still a master of words.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels With Filthy Souls

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

One of the things I love most about Angels with Dirty Faces is that proposes the age-old idea of a person’s entire destiny being defined by one single event. The fact that Jerry (Pat O’Brien) could run faster than his childhood friend Rocky (James Cagney) while being chased by the police for a petty crime would determine the paths they would take in life. If only Rocky could climb over that fence, things would have been so much different.

I’m a huge fan of the Warner Bros gangster movies of the 1930’s and Angels with Dirty Faces is probably the most classic of these movies In that it gets referenced and spoofed most in popular culture. These films deal with social issues, many of which are still relevant today. When I hear current news stories about crime and social issues, I often find myself thinking “They dealt with that in an old 30’s crime/gangster film”. Angels with Dirty Faces is no exception. Rocky Sullivan was never truly a criminal but his stay at a reformatory for his petty crime turned him into one. However, Pat O’Brien’s role of Father Jerry Connolly presents an incredibly stark contrast with today’s commonplace media reports of priests molesting boys. I find it fascinating to see a movie in which a member of the clergy is presented as someone who is treated with the utmost respect and entirely trustworthy, of course, this being an attempt to appease the Legion of Decency.

Even with the religious overtones, the movie still provides one of the most intriguing moral dilemmas ever presented in a movie; Rocky making the ultimate sacrifice. Before his execution, Father Connolly asks him to pretend going yellow and show people he was a coward by begging for mercy before being sent to the chair. The only thing Rocky has left is his reputation and he is being asked to throw that away so kids won’t look up to him and his lifestyle. Rocky does just this at the last moment, a complete rejection of the gangster way of life.

While nothing can top the pure electricity that is Cagey in White Heat, Angels With Dirty Faces gets my spot as the next most interesting performance in his career. The Dead End Kids give Cagney an element to his performance few other actors would rarely get the chance to express, likewise his real-life friendship with Pat O’Brien is easily apparent on screen with their interactions. Humphrey Bogart also appears in a pre-stardom supporting role. Despite only appearing in several scenes he nearly succeeds in upstages Cagney with his enigmatic screen presence. Plus that kid playing a young Cagney at the beginning of the film is very eerily like him.

Socially conscience pictures such as this which came from Warner Bros really give an insight into the lives of the common folk of the time. A moment which always stuck out to me in Angels With Dirty Faces is the basketball game because it’s the only classic-era film which comes to mind which features a basketball game thus showing an activity from the 1930’s which is still popular today. Likewise, the movie also acts as a historical document for the lingo among inner-city youths of the time. The performances given by The Dead End Kids feels like an early example of method acting; no surprise when watching this that it was once referred to as Italian street acting.

Michael Curtiz is undoubtedly one of the greatest craftsmen of Hollywood’s golden age (after all, in this same year he directed one of the most perfect things ever created, The Adventures of Robin Hood). The movie immediately flaunts it’s very handsome production values right from the opening shot. The execution finale of Angels with Dirty Faces alone is a masterpiece of cinematography with its prominent use of shadows, bright lighting and tilted camera angles. Here Curtiz creates a criminal underworld which is hard not to get sucked into. We might not want to emulate gangsters but we can’t help but be fascinated by them.