“The Red Shoes” - Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (1948)

The Red Shoes (1948) is a British film that is very special and almost defies comparison.  And yet when one watches the film today, one can see that the basic story is rather simple and many of the production values were conventional for its day.  Nevertheless, the film has a rich, super-real aspect to it that evokes the feelings of a vivid dream.  Of course, many films can be said to be dreamlike, but The Red Shoes has a unique ability to carry the viewer very far in this direction.  And it differs from a cartoon in that it accentuates the real rather minimizing it.

The film concerns ballet production, which, itself, is an artistic medium that involves the production of dreamlike human landscapes.  But The Red Shoes goes further and blurs the distinctions between the dreamlike ballet and the production elements involved in making the ballet, and thereby it renders the whole ballet production arena into something of a dream.  This is what makes The Red Shoes so special.

The story of the film is inspired by the 19th-century fairy tale “The Red Shoes” [1] (1845) written by Hans Christian Andersen.  In that story, a vain and selfish young peasant girl becomes obsessed with a fancy pair of red shoes that she has acquired, and she ignores her family and community and only wants to show off her shoes by dancing in them.  But the red shoes have a punitive will of their own, and they force the girl to keep dancing in them nonstop, which leads   finally to the girl’s destruction.  

In the movie, the ballet production company’s impresario chooses to fashion and produce a new ballet, titled The Ballet of the Red Shoes, which is to be based on Andersen’s story.  As the film plays out, however, it can be seen that Andersen’s “red shoes” metaphor extends beyond this ballet to other aspects of the narrative, too.

The movie’s opening titles announce that film was written, directed, and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who characteristically operated as a team.(hey called themselves “The Archers”, and this was their tenth collaboration).  However, it is generally assumed that the film’s direction was primarily carried out by Powell, while the script was primarily written by Pressburger (although Keith Winter was also credited with having co-written this script).  The film also benefited from the expert craftsmanship of several top-level British filmmaking professionals – the cinematography (in Technicolor) of Jack Cardiff, the editing of Reginald Mills, the music by Brian Easdale, and the ballet choreography by Robert Helpmann (who also had a significant acting role in the film).  

Despite rather limited promotion from the financially strapped Rank Organization production company, The Red Shoes was well-received when it was released, especially in the United States where it was nominated for five Academy Awards [2].  And the film’s reputation has only grown with critics and viewers ever since [3,4,5,6,7].  In particular, noted filmmaker Martin Scorsese has cited The Red Shoes as one of his very favourite films, remarking [7]:
“It is a film that I continually and obsessively am drawn to.”
The story of the film is relatively straightforward, and it is focussed on three principal characters:
  • Boris Lermontov (played by Anton Walbrook) is the impresario of the world-famous Ballet Lermontov that gives performances all over Europe.  In this connection he is a strict taskmaster and totally dedicated to ensuring that his ballet company performs at the highest artistic levels.
  • Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) is a talented, but little-known, young female ballet dancer who wants to achieve stardom in her field.  She is willing to make whatever personal sacrifice is necessary in order achieve her dream.
  • Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is an ambitious and super-confident young music student and musical composer who is likewise dedicated to his personal success.
Circumstances in the early stages of the film bring these three characters together, and in due time Boris Lermontov hires Julian Craster to compose music for his ballet company.

At a chance meeting at a party, Boris and Victoria (“Vicky”) Page have the following exchange:

    Boris (to Vicky):  “Why do you want to dance?” 
    Vicky:                     “Why do you want to live?” 
    Boris:                       “I don’t know exactly why, but I must.”

    Vicky:                       “That’s my answer, too.”

Vicky’s answer expressing her dedication to dance so impresses Boris that he decides to add her to his ballet troupe.

As the story progresses, Boris becomes more and more impressed with Vicky, and he decides to star her in a new ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Red Shoes”, with a musical score to be composed by Julian Craster.  With the ensuing rehearsals for this ballet, Vicky and Julian have to work together, and their assertive egos clash at various times.  But the viewer is likely to anticipate that as more tome passes a romantic attraction will eventually arise.

Finally, it is time for the public performance of The Ballet of the Red Shoes, and this 20-minute full-ballet sequence is the highlight of the film. It is lyrically filmed with a combination of long shots and closeups skilfully edited into a continuous sequence.  And it has a dreamlike nature to it, because there are a number of portions that could not have been physically staged, such as shots of Vicky dancing with an unfolded newspaper that magically turns into a physical dancing partner, or other shots showing Vicky watching another version of herself dancing.  It all adds up to a vision of something that is happening in Vicky’s imagination rather than something that is being performed onstage.

The Ballet of the Red Shoes turns out to be a huge success, and Lermontov, feeling that his highly demanding control of Vicky and his troupe has payed off, thereafter makes Vicky the lead ballerina and Julian the chief musical composer.  However, during this time Vicky and Julian have fallen secretly in love.  When Lermontov learns about this affair, he is enraged (and possibly unconsciously jealous) – he declares that love is only a weakness and a distraction from one’s true commitments in life.  He doesn’t want his protege, Vicky, to succumb to “adolescent nonsense” and lose her chance at artistic greatness.  So he orders them to breakup.  In response, Julian leaves the Ballet Lermontov, and Vicky chooses to go with him to London, where they get married.  So Vicky has chosen love over art.

But sometime later while Julian is busy rehearsing for his new opera that is to open at Covent Garden, Lermontov runs into Vicky alone and convinces her to return to Monte Carlo and perform again in The Ballet of the Red Shoes.  When Julian hears of this, he rushes to Monte Carlo and goes to Vicky’s dressing room just prior to the ballet’s opening, with Vicky already wearing her red ballet shoes, and he pleads with her to return to him.  Lermontov shows up there, too, and he tells Vicky that she must choose between being a great dancer and being a housewife.

In anguish, Vicky tells Julian that, while he is the only man she loves, she must dance.  Seeing that he has apparently lost her, Julian despondently departs from the dressing room and heads for the railway station.  Vicky is now on the verge of an emotional breakdown, and she seems to succumb to the mysterious control of the red shoes she is wearing.  She runs maniacally out of the ballet theater looking for Julian, but she is headed for her own doom.  Did the red shoes force her into this climactic disaster, or was it her troubled imagination?

There are several aspects of The Red Shoes’s presentation that, almost surprisingly, contribute to the film’s effectiveness.  One of them concerns narrative realism.  There are three levels of  narrative “reality” in the film: 
  • The film, itself.  Every fiction film presents to the filmgoer a basic narrative, the story, that the film is about.  The context here is a ballet production company involving three principal characters. 
  • The ballet.  This story-within-a-story, which is told in a continuous 20-minute segment, relates to the outer story, but, of course, the narrative nature of the ballet form is particularly dreamlike and illusory.
  • The imagination of Victoria Page.  There are brief, disconnected segments showing unreal aspects that exist in Vicky’s imagination.
As I mentioned, he film’s exaggerated production values help blur the boundaries between these levels and contribute to fashioning a narrative whole.  Thus the rich Technicolor tapestry and the over-the-top acting unify some wildly disparate pieces into a continuous dream.

There are, in addition, two thematic elements in the film that stand out.  One concerns the expected role of women in society.  The two men, Boris and Julian, are well-intentioned but clearly chauvinistic towards Vicky.  They both emphatically demand that Vicky mold her entire life in accordance with their uncompromising requirements.  For her part, Vicky is entirely innocent and wants to do whatever she can to satisfy her two inflexible male dictators.  But she is faced with a choice that seems to be tinged with gender-specifics.  Boris Lermontov’s characterization of Vicky’s choice as one between choosing to be either a superstar or a housewife seems not to be too far from reality.  So the gender-related nature of the dilemma that Vicky faces can only further enhance the viewer’s sympathies for her.

The other thematic element that underlies the film concerns the tension between life and art.  Many times an artist has to choose between the two.  But in this regard, it is useful to remember that over our entire lives, we are continuously fashioning narratives about ourselves, about who we are.  And each of us is trying to make this the best possible narrative under the circumstances.  This is everyone’s life’s work, and it means that we are all artists/craftspersons.  So the choice between life and art involves the choice between two different forms of artistic expression.  One choice involves all the complexity of the world, and the other choice involves the streamlined expression of a specific art form.  And Vicky chose the latter – she wanted with all her heart to physically embody the abstract perfection of ballet dance.  As she asserted in her above-cited exchange with Boris, there was no choice involved – dance art was her life.

But the choice between life and art is frequently very complicated and stressful, and that is what “The Red Shoes” is all about.  As Martin Scorsese commented about the film [7]:
“It has to do with the mystery of art – the mystery of the passion to create and the darker side which can take over.”

  1. Hans Christian Andersen, “The Red Shoes” (trans. by Jean Hersholt), H. C. Andersen Centret, (19 September 2019).   
  2. Bosley Crowther, “THE SCREEN IN REVIEW; 'The Red Shoes,' a British Film About the Ballet, Stars Moira Shearer at Bijou”, The New York Times, (23 October 1948).   
  3. Roger Ebert, “A dark, glorious homage to dance”, RogerEbert.com, (1 January 2005).    
  4. Ed Howard, “The Red Shoes”, Only the Cinema, (28 December).  
  5. Christian Blauvelt, “DVD Review: Powell and Pressburger’s ‘The Red Shoes’ on the Criterion Collection”, Slant Magazine, (20 July 2010).   
  6. Ian Christie, “The Red Shoes”, Essays, The Criterion Collection, (24 May 1999).     
  7. Martin Scorsese, “Martin Scorsese: 'The movie that plays in my heart'”, Independent, (29 April 2013).    

Emeric Pressburger

 Films of Emeric Pressburger:

Michael Powell

Films of Michael Powell:

“Farewell, My Lovely” - Dick Richards (1975)

The 1975 film Farewell, My Lovely stands today as a classic film noir, even though it was made a number of years after the period (1940s and 1950s) in which the bulk of the films we associate with that genre were made.  For that reason, this version of Farewell, My Lovely is sometimes labelled a “neo-noir” film.  But in contrast with other, contemporaneous neo-noir films, like The Long Goodbye (1973) [1], which tended to feature updated perspectives and stylistics, the 1975 Farewell, My Lovely very much stuck with the traditional film noir style and themes.  These themes, as I have outlined elsewhere [2,3], consistently revolve around fatalism (most characters feel trapped in a dark world stacked against them), elusive truth (everyone dissembles and lies), and loyalty (because the main characters are solo operators, they always search for someone they can trust).

One aspect of Farewell, My Lovely, in particular, that helps lock it into the film noir genre is that it is based on a detective novel by Raymond Chandler, many of whose works (e.g. The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The Lady in the Lake (1943),  and The Long Goodbye (1953)) served as the narrative bases for atmospheric films noir.  Chandler’s original Farewell, My Lovely (1940) was particularly famous, and it was adapted three times for major motion pictures – The Falcon Takes Over (1942), Murder, My Sweet, (1944), and the present film under discussion, Farewell, My Lovely (1975).  The protagonist in all these hard-boiled Chandler stories is the same – tough, chain-smoking private eye Philip Marlowe, and there is something of a mystique surrounding this cynical, but reflective, character.  This attracted major Hollywood stars to play this character, for example Humphrey Bogart for The Big Sleep (1946).  Here in Farewell, My Lovely it was Robert Mitchum, who, despite his age (57), gave an iconic performance of Marlowe.  

One aspect of Chandler’s Marlowe stories, though, that, despite their popularity, makes them difficult to adapt for film is their tortuous and sometimes contradictory plots; and Farewell, My Lovely was no exception.  So film screenwriters adapting these stories often make changes to them in order to move things along more smoothly for a two-hour film.  In consequence, I am told, a number of film critics and Chandler fans have objected to these changes and have dwelt on them in their reviews.  They also complain that the 57-year-old Mitchum was too old to play Marlowe.  Not having read the original Chandler stories, though, I am not one to object to such changes, and I accept critic Roger Ebert’s assurance that the script changes in Farewell, My Lovely were minor and acceptable [4].  And anyway, even as it stands, the story of the film is still convoluted,  and any simplifications that were made were probably needed.  

In any case, what helps make Farewell, My Lovely a compelling work is the expressionistic noirish atmosphere that pervades the film throughout.  Despite the fact that film director Dick Richards did not apparently have much experience with film noir stylistics, he and his team for this film combined to put together a classic that has been well received over the years [5,6,7,8,9].  In particular the cinematography by John A. Alonzo, featuring relentless moody low-angle imagery, as well as  the film editing by Joel Cox and Walter Thompson are perfectly attuned.  Even though it’s all presented in color, the visual style matches closely with the film-noir aesthetics of the 1940s.  And the 1940-style big-band music by David Shire is also evocative of the 1940s setting.

The story of Farewell, My Lovely is set in 1941 Los Angeles and told mostly as an extended flashback.  Because of the flashback format, the viewer is treated all the way along to the reflective and cynically philosophical commentary from the novel by the principle character, private detective Philip Marlowe.  But it is a vicious tale.  Over the course of this story, there will be seven major characters murdered, as well as numerous gun-wielding henchmen killed in shootouts.

At the outset, detective Marlowe (played by Robert Mitchum) is hired by ex-prizefighter and convicted bank robber Moose Malloy (Jack O'Halloran) to find his old girlfriend Velma, whom he has not seen in the past seven years that he has been in prison.  Marlowe and Malloy go to a nightclub where Velma used to work, and the thuggish Malloy kills the nightclub owner while cross-examining him, after which Malloy goes into hiding.  Meanwhile Marlowe separately connects with two old friends of Velma,  Tommy Ray (Walter McGinn) and Jessie Florian (colorfully played by Sylvia Miles).  Both of them promise to help, but both of them turn out to be liars, and both of them will be eventually murdered.

Then out of the blue, a somewhat bizarre man named Marriott (John O'Leary) hires Marlowe to help him pay a ransom in order to recover some stolen precious jade jewellery.  At the payoff point, though, Marlowe is knocked out and Marriott is found murdered.  At this point there doesn’t seem to be anything connecting this operation and the Malloy-Velma concern.

Marlowe decides to find out what lies behind Marriott’s murder, and his investigations lead him to a wealthy judge, Baxter Grayle (Jim Thompson), who is famous for his large jade jewellery  collection.  When Marlowe visits the elderly Judge Grayle, he is introduced to his much younger and glamorous wife Helen (Charlotte Rampling), who tells Marlowe that she knew Marriott and that she wants him to investigate his murder (which he is already doing).  

Afterwards and just to make things more confusing, a seemingly diversionary segment shows Marlowe being drugged and abducted to a whorehouse run by a notorious madam, Kate Murtagh (Frances Amthor).  There Marlowe discovers two things – (1) the dead body of Tommy Ray and (2) that Amthor seems to be familiar with Moose Malloy.  A confusing melee unrelated to Marlowe then develops which leads to Amthor’s death and enables Marlowe to make his escape from the premises.

Later Helen Grayle telephones Marlowe and tells him she wants to meet him at an upcoming party.  At the swanky party Marlowe sees Helen and is also introduced to gangster Laird Brunette (Anthony Zerbe), who hires Marlowe to arrange a meeting with Malloy.  So now the Malloy and Marriott threads are starting to link up.

Later Marlowe talks to Jessie Florian again, and she tells him that she has been in touch with Velma and that Velma wants to secretly meet up with Malloy.  Marlowe hooks up again with Malloy, and through clandestine telephone communications via Jessie Florian, Malloy and Velma arrange to meet at an obscure motel.  But when Marlowe and Malloy go to the secret rendezvous point, they are ambushed by two gunmen.  Marlowe manages to shoot and kill the two gunmen, and he and Malloy escape.  So evidently the meeting was a setup for murder.  But who is behind this?  Are Jessie and Velma part of this, or are they just a pawns?

After Jessie Florian is found murdered, Marlowe concludes that Jessie must haves just been used by some other malefactor to carry out some dirty deed, and he thinks gangster Brunette must be involved.  So Marlowe and Malloy arrange to sneak onto Brunette’s gambling yacht and see what they can find out.  When they confront Brunette, Helen Grayle surprisingly shows up, and Moose Malloy gets a look at her for the first time.  He recognizes the woman as his long lost Velma, whom he hasn’t seen for seven years.  This is the big, shocking revelation of the film – Helen and Velma are the same person!  It then becomes apparent that she had married Baxter Grayle without the judge knowing about her background of prostitution in Amthor’s brothel.  

Thus it seems that Velma had been arranging, via Brunette’s thugs, for the deaths of anyone who might reveal her salacious past.  But Moose Malloy is still madly in love with Velma and still ready to do anything she tells him to do.  She tells him not to listen to Marlowe’s accusations and to kill him instead.  A double-crossing gunfire exchange breaks out, and it winds up with Velma shooting and killing Moose, followed by Marlowe, in self defence, shooting and killing Velma.  Then the police, who had been trailing Marlowe and Malloy, arrive on the yacht and take control, and Brunette is presumably arrested.

So in this grim tale, are their any sympathetic characters presented besides Marlowe?  Most of those who are bumped off are colorfully eccentric, but they are deceitful and self-obsessed and so not sympathetic characters.  This reduces their interest to the viewer.  The person most likely to be considered a protagonist is the brutish Moose Malloy, who is madly in love with Velma, come what may.  But Moose is so rough he can kill people without thinking.  No, it’s not the existence of sympathetic characters that colors this canvas, but rather the entire nightmarish (and noirish) psychological landscape that Marlowe finds himself in.  This feeling of being hopelessly immersed in a bleak, dispiriting world of losers is something that Marlowe seems to share with his law-enforcement counterpart, Lt. Nulty (John Ireland), and in this respect Nulty and Marlowe seem to share a guarded respect for each other.

In this context it is worth mentioning the rather dismissive general attitude towards colored (i.e. black) people and colored neighbourhoods in the film.  This is not a major theme in the story, but most of the white people seem to dismiss colored people as just belonging to a lower sector of humanity, perhaps a much more common attitude in 1941 America than today.  So it is telling that at the very end of the film, Marlowe, depressed that despite his efforts he has been unable to stop the murderous mayhem, decides to try one last act of benevolence in this arena.  He takes the $2,000 that the gangster Brunette had earlier given him to help track down Moose Malloy and goes to the home of the deceased Tommy Ray, a white man married to a black woman, and gives the money to their mulatto young son.  Maybe that will help the boy, who will be facing a prejudicial society, find a good path in the future.
So returning to the issue of the film’s interesting character, it is Marlowe, himself.  The film is carried by Robert Mitchum’s reflective, world-weary demeanor.  Despite his age, Mitchum is perfect for this role.  He portrays a man who is not idealistic but is trying to contribute (for his small fee) a little order to a disordered world.  His dramatic persona is what makes Farewell, My Lovely a compelling watch.
  1. The Film Sufi, “‘The Long Goodbye’ - Robert Altman (1973)”, The Film Sufi. (4 March 2021).   
  2. The Film Sufi, “Film Noir”, The Film Sufi, (11 August 2008).   
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘Le Doulos’ - Jean-Pierre Melville (1963)”, The Film Sufi, (27 February 2009).   
  4. Roger Ebert, “Farewell, My Lovely”, RogerEbert.com, (1975).   
  5. Richard Eder, “Screen: Detective Yarn: Mitchum Is Marlowe in New Version of Chandler's 'Farewell My Lovely'”, The New York Times, (14 August 1975).   
  6. Molly Haskell, “Iconographic Wrinkles”, The Village Voice, (25 August 1975).   
  7. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, “Farewell, My Lovely”, Spirituality & Practice, (n.d.).   
  8. Dennis Schwartz, “FAREWELL MY LOVELY”, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews, (n.d.).   
  9. Raquel Stecher, “Farewell, My Lovely”, Turner Classic Movies, (2 January 2020).     

Dick Richards

Films of Dick Richards:

“White Heat” - Raoul Walsh (1949)

White Heat (1949), starring James Cagney, is certainly regarded as one of the best gangster films ever made, and indeed some people rank it among the greatest films, period.  Time magazine listed it as one of 100 best films all time [1], and many film critics have heaped the film with praise [2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11].  Indeed, critic Vivaan Shah hailed White Heat as his all-time favourite film and the one film that changed his life [3].  

So what is so special about White Heat?  Overall, the production values were excellent but were characteristic of many top Warner Brothers’ films of this time.  The film was directed by veteran Raoul Walsh, with noirish cinematography by Sidney Hickox, film editing by Owen Marks, and emphatic screen music by Max Steiner.  However, as professionally performed as these elements were, they are probably not primarily responsible for the film’s lasting popularity.  More telling in this regard was probably (a) the film’s dark-laden script by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, which was based on a story by Virginia Kellogg, and (b) the memorably expressive acting of James Cagney.  This seemed to extend the film beyond the usual boundaries of a gangster movie or film noir and into the region of the horror genre.  For truly the character that Cagney plays in White Heat is something of a monster.

The story of White Heat is rather extended and moves through four somewhat twisted segments covering the nefarious activities of the criminal gang run by Arthur "Cody" Jarrett (played by James Cagney).  Over the course of this account, the viewer gets an increasingly extended picture of just how depraved is Cody Jarrett.  Along the way, there are two key themes that underlie what is going on:
  • Trust and Betrayal 
    As generally with film noir, loyalty and trust are key issues here.  There are several instances of betrayal – both of Cody and on the part of Cody – that occur in this film. 
  • Soulless Hi-Tech Surveillance
    Although Cody is ultimately a malevolent figure, he does stand as a lone protagonist struggling against several antagonists.  The most disturbing of these opponents is the machine-like operation of the government authorities which employ, for its day (1949), advanced technology to locate and encircle the fugitive Cody.  So we are continually presented with the metaphor of a lone individual struggling against a faceless machine.
These are more than just fascinating narrative elements; they identify profound issues that affect each and every one of us to this day.  In this regard, historian Yuval Noah Harari has argued that our entire civilized existence is based on our acceptance of common narratives that generate trust and facilitate cooperative operation crucial to the success of our society [12,13].  Moreover, Harari has argued that encroachments and disruptions arising from advanced computer technology represent existential threats to our entire way of life.

1.  The Train Robbery
At the outset, Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) and his gang ambush a train in the California mountains and rob a payroll of $360,000 [14] it was carrying.  The cruelty of Cody and his gang is immediately evident when we see them killing four innocent people during the robbery.  Afterwards the gang gather in a motel hideout, where Cody’s wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo) and his mother, “Ma” Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly), attend to them.  Ma Jarrett is criminally minded herself and is shown to be a gang co-conspirator.  Cody is also shown to be a secret sufferer of severe and temporarily disabling migraine headaches, which only Ma can soothe.  
There is a further display of Cody’s inherently cruel nature when the gang is about to depart from their temporary hideout and head off in separate directions.  Cody looks at one of the gang members who was severely injured during the train robbery and just sees him as a burden, so he orders another gang member to kill him.

2.  Motel Attack
Cody has committed a federal crime, and US federal investigator Philip Evans (John Archer) starts looking for evidence.  Using advanced technology, like fingerprints and walkie-talkie coordination, he traces Cody and his family to a Los Angeles motel.  But when he tries to arrest his suspect, Cody shoots him (but not lethally) and escapes.  Cody is now on the run and needs an airtight alibi.
3.  Cody’s Alibi Scheme and Escape
Cody decides to confess to a lesser crime committed on the same day as the train robbery in faraway Illinois by one of his associates.  He readily accepts the guilty verdict and begins serving his 1-to-3-year prison sentence.  However investigator Evans still thinks Cody is guilty of the train robbery and wants to track down the “fence” Cody has used to launder his stolen goods.   So Evans plants an undercover agent, Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien), operating under the name "Vic Pardo", in Cody’s Illinois prison cell in order to spy on Cody and uncover wanted information.

Meanwhile on the outside, Cody’s right-hand-man, "Big Ed" Somers (Steve Cochran), seeks to take over the gang and seduce Cody’s beautiful wife, Verna, too.  He tries to arrange to have Cody murdered in prison, but that attempt fails and only leads to Cody having more trust in Vic Pardo.

However, when Cody learns that Ma has been murdered (by Verna, we later learn), he goes berserk in the prison mess hall.  Cagney’s crazed outburst here is famous and has led critic Vivaan Shah to call it “the finest piece of acting ever filmed“ [3].  Cody is straitjacketed and taken to a special cell, but amazingly he manages to escape from the prison with Vic Pardo and some other cell-mates.

4.  The Chemical Plant Caper
On the outside now, Cody, wrongly assuming that Big Ed killed Ma, shoots and kills Big Ed.  Then he and the gang, now including the mistakenly trusted Pardo, start thinking about their next caper.  Here we finally meet the fence, Daniel Winston (Fred Clark), known as "The Trader", who advises them to steal the payroll from a chemical plant.  The plan is for the gang members to sneak into the walled-off plant by hiding inside an empty tanker truck that they have procured.  Pardo, however, manages to surreptitiously rig up some electronic signal-processing equipment inside the tanker so that the police can track the truck’s whereabouts by radar.

In the event, there is another grim display of faceless hi-tech surveillance, as the police, again using their walkie-talkies, trace and follow the gang’s truck to a big chemical plant.  Cody and his gang arrive first and manage to get into the payroll office, but the police come and storm the building.  A brutal shootout ensues, and most of Cody’s gang are killed.  But Cody, a heartless rogue to the end, climbs up on top of a huge gas storage tank and shoots his last remaining gang colleague, who was trying to surrender, in the back.  The final fiery shots show Cody engulfed in flames high atop the burning storage tank and shouting, "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!".  Truly he has found his home in Hell.

When we survey the whole of White Heat, we can identify many melodramatic scenes and situations that are colourfully depicted, but the question still remains – what is it that makes this film so popular?  Most compelling narratives, including those of the film noir and gangster genres, have a character with whom the viewer can have some empathetic concern.  The viewer identifies with this character’s problematic situation.  Is there such a figure in White Heat?
  • Certainly Cody Jarrett, even taking into account his debilitating migraine headaches (a plot element added to the original story), is a repellant character throughout the story.  There is nothing sympathetic about his character. 
  • His unfaithful wife, Verna, is a liar and cold-blooded murderer. 
  • Her lover, Big Ed, is a similarly malicious murderer. 
  • Hank Fallon, alias "Vic Pardo", is a government agent, but he, too, lies, betrays, and kills.
  • Phil Evans, the main government investigator, is as cold and faceless as the hi-tech equipment he relies on. 
  • Ma Jarrett, whose character was modelled after the real-life bank robber Ma Barker, is a sympathetic mom, but hers is a relatively peripheral character to the story.
So I don’t see any real sympathetic characters that the viewer can focus on in White Heat, and that is why I would say that this film seems to be not so much a film noir or a gangster movie and is instead more like a horror film or monster film.  

Nevertheless, there is something fascinating about the Cody Jarrett character.  He is not some demonic figure, like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), whose complex evil scheme the viewer tries to unwind.  Jarrett is relatively transparent in that respect.  Nor is the viewer privy to some sort of, maybe empathy-inducing, inchoate struggle on the part of the antagonist to be more human, as was the case of Frankenstein’s (1931) monster.  Rather, there is something intrinsically fascinating about Jarrett’s irrepressibly energetic personality, as portrayed by James Cagney.  Sometimes the viewer, when presented with a struggle between agency and mechanism, will almost instinctively be drawn into following the fate of the agent, no matter what its moral stature.

So the magnetic Cody Jarrett, afflicted by crippling migraines and surrounded by traitors and encircling law enforcers, never gives up and ultimately goes it alone.  It is, especially given the prevailing Hays Code at the time, an inevitably doomed ride.  But Cody keeps going, and he takes the viewer along with him.

  1. Richard Corliss, “All-TIME 100 Movies”, TIME, (12 February 2005).      
  2. Bosley Crowther, “THE SCREEN IN REVIEW; James Cagney Back as Gangster in 'White Heat,' Thriller Now at the Strand”, The New York Times, (3 September 1949).   
  3. Vivaan Shah, “Raoul Walsh's 'White Heat': Cosmic Battleground”A Potpourri of Vestiges, (July 2018).   
  4. Michael E. Grost, “White Heat”, The Films of Raoul Walsh, (n.d.).    
  5. Jim Hemphill, “White Heat (1949)”, American Cinematographer, (July 2005).   
  6. Matt Zoller Seitz, “30 Minutes On: ‘White Heat’", RogerEbert.com, (24 January  2019).    
  7. Jeffrey M. Anderson, “White Heat (1949)”, Combustible Celluloid, (n.d.).   
  8. Brian Koller, “White Heat (1949), Grade: 85/100", filmsgraded.com, (26 November 2007).   
  9. Rob Nixon, “White Heat”, Turner Classic Movies, (27 February 2003).   
  10. Rob Nixon, “The Essentials - White Heat”, Turner Classic Movies, (2 February 2010).   
  11. Rob Nixon, “Behind the Camera - White Heat”, Turner Classic Movies, (2 February 2010).  
  12. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (London: Harvill Secker, 2014).
  13. Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018).
  14. It would be worth more than ten times that amount today.

Raoul Walsh

Films of Raoul Walsh: