White Heat

(Raoul Walsh, USA, 1949)


"Do you know what to do?", barks Cody (James Cagney) at his sidekick at the start of a daring train robbery; when the guy starts replying, Cody cuts him off: "Just do it, stop gabbing!"

This headlong, action-only attitude sums up the drive of Raoul Walsh's films, which (as Peter Lloyd once remarked) "take the pulse of an individual energy" and embed it within a "demented trajectory out of which is born the construction of a rhythm". Few films are as taut, sustained and economical in their telling as White Heat.

Walsh is a relentlessly linear, forward-moving director whose work harks back to the silent era – as in that exciting, car-meets-train opener. But he also explores the intriguing, complicating possibilities of twentieth-century psychology.

On the job, Cody kills ruthlessly. Once holed up like a caged animal with his gang – as he will later be imprisoned – Cody's psychopathology begins to emerge: indifference to others' suffering, fixation on a tough Mom, searing migraines that send him berserk.

Cody, as immortalised in Cagney's powerhouse performance, embodies the ultimate contradiction which brings down movie gangsters: fantastic egotism and dreams of invincibility ("Look, Ma, top of the world!") undermined by all-too-human dependencies, flaws and vulnerabilities.

MORE Walsh: The Man I Love

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search