film

Old School Review: “White Heat” (1949)

Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts and directed by Raoul Walsh, “White Heat” is a crime caper starring James Cagney as Cody Jarrett, returning to the type of role that made him famous years prior in films such as “The Public Enemy” or “Angels with Dirty Faces”. Admittedly, if you open a gangster flick with a train heist and close it out with an explosive shootout, I’ll be there with a smile as wide as the grand canyon. As a fan of genre cinema, “White Heat” was an excellent example of everything that I love about these films. Larger than life performances combined with strong pacing and intelligent characters on both sides of the law led the film to take a few delightfully unexpected routes. Jarrett’s gang follows a strict system and those who fall behind are killed with callous and pragmatic means. The treasury agents chasing down the gang are just as clever however and constantly nipping at the gang’s heels at every turn.

We follow Jarrett as the leader of a ruthless gang as they effectively stop a train and get away with a few hundred thousand to spare. Cagney’s charismatic but highly unstable portrayal of Cody Jarrett is the diamond-cut core of the film, but the surrounding cast all gave impeccable performances that helped to buoy the film throughout. Cody was a fascinating gangster character as this role opened up the psychology of such a killer- at least as far as a film in late 1940’s America was going to explore. The volatile killer had an unusually strong connection to his mother portrayed by Margaret Wycherly in a solid role as “Ma Jarrett” who seemed by Cody’s account to have been tragically surrounded by con men her whole life. Cody’s wife Verna, played by Virginia Mayo, was an interesting sort of femme fatale- not quite the image you may be conjuring of noir films like “The Maltese Falcon” but she was seemingly caught in the mix and in-between lovers. Big Ed, played by Steve Cochran, was the subordinate gangster with big ideas of his own, including killing Cody and stealing away Verna. These two offered a few great points of interest and tension as Cody orchestrated a long con in getting sent to a prison in Springfield, Illinois for the confession of a far smaller crime that supposedly took place at the same time as the train robbery near Los Angeles. All crafted to obfuscate and disorient the cops on their trail.

John Archer was believable as Phillip Evans, the head Treasury Cop in Los Angeles chasing down the Jarrett Gang, and instrumental in organizing a tit-for-tat game of chase across the country and back. Luckily, just as Cody got sent to prison Evans calls up a friend in the agency, Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) who specializes in undercover stings by infiltrating prisons and getting close to the criminals they’re after. After a quick cover is drafted, Hank, now known as Vic Pardo, gets sent to the same cell as Cody, and inadvertently saves Cody’s life from a hit ordered from Big Ed on the outside, and is quickly indoctrinated as one of the gang. The various plot-lines and character decisions from this point on where exciting and joyfully unexpected.

“White Heat” was both nostalgic and refreshing on my first watch through. It held up a lot of the well known tropes and norms of the gangster films of the time, but this post-war thriller pulled a few fast ones and introduced a few more shades of villainous character analysis.If you’re looking for a classic black and white gangster film starring one of old Hollywood’s leading men, then give this one a look! I caught it on the Criterion Collection’s streaming service- (The Criterion Channel) and I cannot recommend that platform enough if you enjoy older (or foreign) films.

Final Score: 1 Giant Ball of Fire

film

Old School Review: “The Wild Bunch” (1969)

Written by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah, and directed by Peckinpah, “The Wild Bunch” is a Western following a gang of gunslingers and outlaws emerging into the twentieth century as they come to terms with the end of their era. If you’ve spent the last two months roaming the digital countrysides of “Red Dead Redemption 2” like I have, and you’re seeking more of that same grizzled cowboy violence, then “The Wild Bunch” will definitely satiate some of your old west woes. This movie shares many of the same themes and visual cues that the groundbreaking video-game western implements over it’s hours, upon hours, of storytelling.

After a botched heist devolves into a shootout in an excellent opening scene, the ragged outlaws finally reach a place to gather themselves and account for their losses. It’s here that Pike (William Holden), the gang leader, poises the terms of their next score and the core of their existential crisis, “We’ve got to start thinkin’ beyond our guns. Those days are closin’ fast.” Set during the global eve of World War One in 1913 with the modern world quickly encroaching on those tied to the ways of old, “The Wild Bunch” delivers us a nuanced and layered film that pairs its chaotic violence with real humanistic quality. It’d be an arduous task in finding a Western more concerned with tragedy and loss, or one so bathed in melancholy and savageness. The noble outlaws in this picture are exposed to some of the most uncensored violence of the day when it was initially released. While Sam Peckinpah thought the violence would shock people into the horrors of such a time, he would have no idea how much people might enjoy such cathartic carnage.

The driving force of the film lies in the pursuit of Pike’s gang by a posse led by a former outlaw and friend, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). Previously captured and coerced into hunting his fellow outlaws by an anonymous railroad tycoon, Deke detests the system he now works for and frequently talks down to his less than skillful hired help. Thus Pike’s gang flees to south of the border where they are plunged into another brand of chaos in the Mexican civil war as gun runners. While Deke may be coerced into tracking his former brothers, Pike’s gang has their own fair share of being forced into servitude by the Mexican army. Adherence to pressure by necessity, being forcibly made to adhere to the ways of others, is a major theme of the film as these outlaws get swept up by the progression of time.

Peckinpah handles the individual gang members with such mythic, admirable, and poetic romanticism that you often forget about earlier sequences focusing on the deglamorization of warfare. It’s within this contradictory sensation of heroic admiration and frightening nihilism that Peckinpah allows his characters to shine. Angel (Jaime S├ínchez), and Dutch (Ernest Borgnine [The Arthur Morgan of this film ironically]) in particular, are standouts among the gang. Dutch is one of the older outlaws and Pike’s second in command. With his wisdom from the school of hard knocks and a heart of gold to match, he pairs well with Angel’s youthful exuberance and itchy trigger finger. It’s all about balance, right?

The film is bookended by two large shootout sequences which weave chaotic violence with a romanticized nostalgia for times (and films) gone by. The film doesn’t necessarily glorify violence so much as it attempts to show the uglier and dirtier world of cinematic gunslingers. I honestly couldn’t say it better than the 1995 Chicago Tribune review of the restored director’s cut, “It’s a tale of demonic intensity, nightmare nihilism, cockeyed courage, outrageous compassion and savage grandeur.” 

Final Score: A few bags of washers and a train full of guns!