‘Task Force’ in ‘White Heat’

cody
Verna, Ma, and Cody at the drive-in

The heyday of the American gangster movie lasted eighteen years. It started in 1931 with Little Caesar, starring Edward G. Robinson, and The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney, and ended in 1949 with Cagney’s White Heat, directed by Raoul Walsh. (All three are Warner Brothers productions and are on the American Film Institute’s list of the top ten gangster movies of all time. Chronologically, the one after White Heat is Bonnie and Clyde, released in 1967, also by Warners.)

White Heat pointed the way forward in a number of ways. It had the kind of gritty semi-documentary style scene in crime films of the late ’40s and ’50s like Naked City, The Asphalt Jungle, and The Killing. It had the dark psychological themes of the emerging film noir genre, especially in the portrait of Cagney’s character, sadistic gangster Cody Jarrett. Cody suffers debilitating headaches, comforted only by the Oedipal ministrations of his Ma (Margaret Wycherly), who massages his neck and invites him to sit in her lap.

And it had a modern movie-in-movie scene. It occurs early on, when Cody, Ma, and his girlfriend, Verna (Virginia Mayo), are being chased by the cops. Needless to say, Ma is sitting next to Cody, Verna riding shotgun. He pulls in to the San Val Drive In theater in Burbank (the country’s second drive-in, opened in 1938), as the police cars speed past, sirens blaring. Taking his money, the ticket-taker says, “It happens every night. Ruins the movie.”

The movie is Warner Brothers Task Force, which was still a few weeks from release at the time of White Heat‘s premiere. (And therein lies a goof. A sharp-eyed poster to a website about movie theaters points out that the marquee announces two different 1949 movies, the western South of St. Louis and the exotic fantasy Siren of Atlantis.) I haven’t seen Task Force, but according to the IMDB description, it’s apparently a history of aircraft carriers seen through the eyes of a fictional admiral played by Gary Cooper. In any case, all the explosions and mayhem are too much for Cody, possibly because he feels a headache coming on. After an attendant puts a speaker inside the car (I just barely remember that technology), he orders Verna, “Kill that.”

After Verna’s sarcastic comment about the second feature, Cody outlines his plans for escape. Just before he bolts the car, he kisses both ladies goodbye–lingering just a little more on Ma than on Verna.

 

“Saboteur”

In 1942, six years after Sabotage, Alfred Hitchcock made the similarly titled Saboteur. But so much had changed. Hitchcock was now based in America, and Saboteur–an earlier-day North By Northwest, in a number of ways–was his first film to exploit the landmarks of what would become his adopted country, including Boulder Dam, the Statue of Liberty, and, in the movie-in-movie scene, Radio City Music Hall.

The main character, competently played by Robert Cummings, works in a munitions plant in Los Angeles (which in the movie is always pronounced “Los Angle-ese,” the way I remember the baseball announcers of my youth saying it). Falsely accused of setting a fire, he goes on the lam and eventually crosses the country, along the way finding the real Fifth Columnists.

One of the traitors is played by Norman Lloyd, whose career has stretched from his debut on the New York stage in 1933 to a role in 2015’s Trainwreck (and included a memorable turn as Dr. Auschlander in the 1980s medical drama St. Elsewhere). The cops are on to him and track him down in Radio City, filled with folks watching a melodrama.

 

It’s a great set piece but a strange one. The audience is tittering, then laughing uproariously, at the film on the big screen (which isn’t a real movie but a scene shot by Hitchcock with B-list actors), even after jealous-husband Henry pulls out a gun and threatens to use it. At that very moment, the Lloyd character, cornered by the cops and hiding behind the movie screen, shoots through it with terrible consequences. Henry starts shooting, but the audience incongruously keeps  roaring with laughter–until a woman screams. Lloyd moves in front of the screen and darts across it, creating a riveting image that may have been Hitchcock’s most self-conscious commentary on reality and artifice and terror, and how mixed up they can become.

Screen Shot 2017-12-16 at 5.22.48 PM

 

“Playful Pluto” in “Sullivan’s Travels”

Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is one of the most meta movies that came out of Hollywood, at least before post-modernism reared its self-conscious head. It opens with an action scene–a fistfight on top of a train, with both protagonists falling to a watery grave. But then, the words “The End” appear in the water–it was only a movie. Three men get up from their screening-room seats, and one of them, director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), argues to two studio execs that what they and we have just seen is just the sort of socially conscious document Depression American needs.

Sullivan (aka Sully) is ashamed of the escapist fare that has made him rich–trifles like Ants in Your Plants of 1939, Hey Hey in the Hayloft, and So Long Sarong. (Either the last is an amazing coincidence or Sturges knew that Pardon My Sarong, starring Abbott and Costello, was in production and would be released the following year.) He wants to make a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!

Exec: But with a little sex in it.

Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!

Exec: But with a little sex in it.

Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.

Unfortunately, Sullivan, a product of boarding school, has no experience with the suffering of humanity, and therefore resolves to put on hobo clothes, go out on the road, and obtain some. Complications ensue, notably involving Veronica Lake, identified in the credits only as The Girl. “How does the girl fit into the picture?” a cop asks Sully. He says, “There’s always a girl in the picture. What’s the matter, don’t you go to the movies?”

There’s lots of other self-referential lines, including knowing mentions of Sturges’ colleagues Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch. At one point, Sully, in trouble yet again, breaks the fourth wall, remarking, “If ever a plot needed a twist, this one does.”

The movie can be said to be structured around three movie-watching scenes. The first is the fight sequence that opens things up. The second comes when Sully is taken in, and taken to a picture show, by two maiden ladies. Here the camera stays on the audience and all we get from the movie is some lachrymose music–the dialogue is drowned out by the sounds of kids sniffling and people munching on snacks, all combining to give the sense of a pretty miserable cinematic experience. As Sully and his companions leave, we see from a lobby card that a triple bill is playing: Beyond these Tears, The Valley of the Shadow, and The Buzzard of Berlin.

The third movie-within-the-movie is the climactic scene of Sullivan’s Travels, and the only one that’s an actual movie. Through plot machinations, Sullivan has found himself a prisoner on a chain gang, subject to miserable conditions. For a rare respite, the prisoners are brought to a rural African-American church, where a movie is projected on a white sheet that serves as a makeshift screen. The selection of the day is a 1934 slapstick (rather Warner Brothers-y, in fact) Disney short, “Playful Pluto.” As Sully watches, he begins to have a revelation.

 

Through more plot machinations, he is released. News of his adventures have created a nationwide sensation, and the studio execs are now eager to make O Brother, Where Art Thou?  One of them says, “It will put Shakespeare back with the shipping news!”

But Sully will have none of it. He wants to make a comedy. He says, as the picture comes to and end, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”