White Heat (1949)

james_cagney_in_white_heat_trailer_cropWhite Heat burns like hot coals even today as the epitome of incendiary cinema. It’s a gangster picture from master Warner Bros. craftsman Raoul Walsh that’s volatile and intriguing, highlighted by the always fiery James Cagney as a crazed man-child with a mom complex.

Cagney had stayed away from gangster pictures that made him a star for nearly a decade and it’s true that now it’s easy to label this a film-noir given the sweeping tide of the times including other pictures like The Killers, Brute Force, and so on.

Still, everything that is truly inspired from this film stems from Cagney’s performance because we have seen gangsters before, bank jobs, inside men, gun molls, and the like but Cody Jarrett is one for the ages. He throws a twisted wrench into what is already a quality thriller by going absolutely ballistic and simultaneously jolting it in the most peculiar ways.

Before Norman Bates was even whispered on the lips of audiences Cagney burst onto the scene with his demonic characterization, very plainly evil personified as the psychotic Cody Jarrett. He smacks policemen, guns down the worthless, and schemes incessantly. However, he also has a strange sense of family and friendship. He’s prone to crippling migraines like his insane father and still parks himself on his mother’s lap. He even befriends a copper, except he doesn’t know it. He gets duped like a two-bit stooge.

Edmond O’Brien was on the rise at this point following such films as The Killers and The Web. He still owns a supporting role in the sometimes thankless job as the decent heartbeat of law and order. But he has so much more character than all the other stiffs with their fine looks and chiseled jawlines who simultaneously faded into the annals of history.

Although he’s playing support to Cagney, there are a lot worse gigs and the pair works well with each other. At one time strangers, confidantes, and finally bitter enemies in the constantly seesawing dynamic that comes when an undercover agent looks to get buddy-buddy with a certifiable psychopath. Not surprisingly it makes for a thoroughly engaging crime film because the characters actually have something to them.

The iconic Mess Hall sequence brimming with Cagney’s explosive bravado is representative of his flair throughout the entire picture. It just won’t let up. It never lets up. A line of “telephone” takes a message down the row of inmates (including sports icon Jim Thorpe) before reaching the waiting ears of the hardened criminal. Like a stick of dynamite, he goes off and becomes possessed by some unnamed force. It represents the manic, off the wall style of Cagney that still compels audiences today. It’s no longer a simple performance. This is not acting (or it doesn’t seem like it). This is feeling, hate, anger, rebellion, and violence all channeled into a transcendent moment where the man has completely lost himself in a role. No one can touch him. It’s fantastic.

Virginia Mayo finds herself portraying her particular sultry siren accustomed to mink and bubblegum. While Steve Cochran stands tall as the main crony with big ideas, the aptly name Big Ed who is looking to worm himself in on Jarret’s territory (and female company), while he’s incarcerated. Meanwhile, Margaret Wycherly who was previously known as the angelic mother of Alvin York takes on a maternal role on the complete opposite spectrum and she does a fine job as a woman modeled after the notorious Ma Barker.

Any great crime story needs a final set piece where everything can culminate in one ultimate crescendo. White Heat does not disappoint in this regard as Agent Hank Fallon looks to tip off his colleagues following the inception of a big heist of a chemical plant in Long Beach. What follows is a tense dragnet and shootout and it’s a fitting place for Jarrett to meet his maker or in his case his mother. He literally goes into the inferno, blowing up and entering the conflagrations of hell in the most startling of fashions — still clinging doggedly to his mom–his twisted guardian angel of death. It’s a curtain call worthy of such a performance and knowing it can do no better, the film ends there, no fanfare just a grimy picture where criminals aren’t as cut and dry as Hollywood once supposed.

5/5 Stars

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946): The Forgotten Counterpart to George Bailey’s Story

The_Best_Years_of_Our_Lives_film_Inherent in a film with this title, much like It’s a Wonderful Life, is the assumption that it is a generally joyous tale full of family, life, liberty, and the general pursuit of happiness. With both films you would be partially correct with such an unsolicited presumption, except for all those things to be true, there must be a counterpoint to that.

Upon watching both these films on subsequent days, that became markedly evident. George Bailey (James Stewart), of course, must go through a perturbing alternate reality where he never existed, and the consequences are catastrophic to all those he knows and loves in his community. But such a paradigm shift or new perspective, does truly revitalize his entire existence. It’s as if he sees the whole world through an unfaltering lens of hopefulness thereafter.

Although it lacks the dark fantasy that engulfs the latter half of It’s a Wonderful Life, Best Years has its own heavy dose of foreboding, that while more realistic, is no less disconcerting. All the boys have returned from the theaters of Europe and the Pacific, including our three protagonists Fred (Dana Andrews), Homer (Harold Russell), and Al (Fredric March). Upon getting back to their old abode of Boone City, sons talk about nuclear fallout in Hiroshima and men at drug store counters warn of the imminent threat of “The Reds.” Some soldiers like Fred have trouble landing work. Others struggle with getting the necessary loans from banks like the one Al works at,  or they come back to far less glamorous lifestyles. Homer copes with being a double amputee and simultaneously closes himself off to all those who love him, including his longtime sweetheart Velma (Cathy O’Donnell). He must learn not so much how to love, but the equally difficult life skill of allowing others to love him.

Derry also struggles in a loveless marriage with his superficial wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), while also battling with PTSD symptoms like recurrent nightmares. Even the subtle reality that the only African-Americans in the film work behind soda fountain counters or in nightclub jazz bands has greater implications. Theirs is a relegated status, even in a country of liberty like America. Unlike the former film, we do not see any ghoulish human cemeteries, but we do see plane graveyards like ghost towns where metal is slowly rusting just waiting to get demolished and re-purposed. At this point, it is only a sobering reminder of all those who fought and died in the war years.

Many of these topics are only mentioned for a brief moment or we can only infer them from visual cues, but still, they lurk there under the surface or better yet, right in plain view. These real-life unsettling concerns are worse than It’s a Wonderful Life because they fall so close to home even today.

Wounded veterans are still coming home to a country that doesn’t know what to do with them, or a country that seems ungrateful for their service. Married folks still struggle through marriage and divorce. Single people still struggle with figuring out if they should get married and so on.

I think part of the reason I admire The Best Years of Our Lives so much, despite its nearly 3 hour running time, is its ability to captivate my attention rather like a day in the life of someone I would meet on the street. Although Virginia Mayo and Mryna Loy seem the most Hollywood, most everyone feels rather ordinary. Certainly, Dana Andrews is handsome and Teresa Wright, as well as Cathy O’Donnell, are wonderful as multidimensional girls-next-door, but I feel like I could potentially know people like them. And of course, Harold Russell was unusual since he wasn’t a trained actor. That casting choice pays off beautifully in moments such as the final wedding scenes where in a dyslexic moment he switches up his vows. But it works wonderfully as an authentic addition.

Although Gregg Toland worked on revolutionary fare like Citizen Kane, and William Wyler dabbled in all sorts of genres from westerns to period dramas, they have all the necessary sensibilities for a perfect presentation given the subject matter. The visuals are crisp and beautiful, but never flashy or overly conspicuous. The use of deep focus concerns itself with the overall composition of the frame -never attempting to focus our attention on any singular action.  It all becomes equally important. Meanwhile, Wyler directs with a sure hand that makes the actions flow organically and at the same time his ensemble is given the space and the time to grow and evolve before our very eyes.

It’s a timeless film for what it brings to the forefront and also because of what it evokes out of the audience members themselves. There is an underlying somberness to it at times, but most importantly it rings loudly with the high unequivocal notes of hope. In the post-war years, it was a pertinent film, and it still has something to offer even now. More people need to know about The Best Years of our Lives.

5/5 Stars

Review: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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Who in their right mind would make a film like this today? I mean it’s nearly three hours of incessant talking and character development. There are no explosions or special effects. There are not even any war scenes! And yet it is pure gold from William Wyler. He forces us to get to know these characters — all the details about them — and it is a pleasure.

In a year that boasted the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life, it is not simply a testament to the post-war sentiment, but also the power of this film, that led it to garner so much praise including a Best Picture Oscar.

Like Capra’s film, WWII plays a role here without actually focusing on the fighting. The effects of such a cataclysmic event were enough on their own.  The Best Years of Our Lives chooses to focus on the point of view of three returning servicemen. However, it would be selling the film short to suggest that is all the film is about. It revolves around deeper issues such as family, camaraderie, patriotism, and of course romance. Over the course of the film each man must navigate his own path, and much of those pathways have to do with their romantic relationships.

Al (Fredric March) has been married 20 years and yet he returns to a home with a wife and kids who seem more foreign than the battlefronts he fought on. His loving wife Milly (Myrna Loy) patiently allows him to become acclimated and stands beside him as he stands up for his convictions at his bank.

Then there is Homer (Harold Russell), the double amputee, who is bracing for the worst as he returns to his family and the girl next door named Wilma. His way of dealing with the situation is to avoid those he loves because by not letting them get close he thinks that will allow them to move forward with their lives. However, Homer completely misjudges just how much his girl loves him. Wilma is the real deal, and she is prepared to remain faithful to Homer no matter the circumstances.

The final relationship is perhaps the most complicated of the lot. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is the complete antithesis of Al. He has little work experience, and he was a young man who only knew his wife for a handful of days before he went off to war. Now it is all coming back to bite him because Marie (Virginia Mayo) is not ready to patiently wait around while the former soda jerk tries to find a job. She wants money, nights on the town, and good times. Sparks fly and Fred finds himself drawn more and more to Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) since his marriage is a loveless one. This relationship is perhaps the most agonizing to watch as Fred is torn apart, but he ultimately gets the girl who will accept him for who he is.

“The best years of our lives” may have been during the war for some, but that really does not matter, because with the right attitude humanity is able to move forward to make the best of the future. That is one of the merits of this film, it exudes hopefulness and despite their different lots, each character is able to find a little slice of joy.

No one personality outshines any of the others, but on the contrary, all the players add up to the perfect combination. I will shamelessly acknowledge that Teresa Wright is one of my favorite actresses and over the last few years I have come to really appreciate Dana Andrews. They really do deserve more credit and I hope this film continues to get the praise it deserves. It is a delectable slice of cinema and Americana.

5/5 Stars

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Directed by William Wyler, the film chronicles the lives of three men as they return from World War II. They feel joy and then angst trying to integrate back into society  with lives that are strangely different from when they left. They face various struggles like finding a job, holding a marriage together, to just trying to get used to a disability. Although they each have their own lives which we get to see first hand, they are still intertwined. Together these three men find it within themselves to make these the best years possible. Full of both highs and lows, this movie is extremely touching and leaves you with a smile. The cast is superb including Dana Andrews, Fredric March, Harold Russell (real life amputee), Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, and of course Hoagy Carmichael. This film is great because it does not try to glamorize and it stands the test of time in my mind.

5/5 Stars

White Heat (1949) – Film-Noir

Starring James Cagney, Edmund O’Brien, and Virginia Mayo, once again Cagney does the gangster role. However, his Cody Jarret is older and more psychotic than ever as he leads his band of thugs. Although he has a beautiful wife, the main woman in Jarret’s life is his mom who watches over him. After an initial robbery, Jarret beats the rap by confessing to a smaller crime. While he is in jail the police plant one of their men (O’Brien). Eventually the pair and a crew of cronies break out and plan their next move. However, the undercover man cleverly tips off his colleagues and they follow in hot pursuit. Pretty soon the only one left is Jarret and he is isolated near high above near a gas storage tank. In a crazy fit, Jarret yells to his ma that he has made it to the top of the world as he goes up in flames. This movie has wonderful suspense in the end and Cagney is chilling yet again.

5/5 Stars