White Heat (1949) James Cagney terrifies as gang leader Cody Jarrett whom not even prison walls can stop from going berzerk and killing as many people as he can. “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” Director Raoul Walsh’s apocalyptic vision exposes man’s capacity for absolute evil, willing to take down all humanity in the service of a self-righteous madness.
And then the fifties discovered Freud.
Cody Jarrett, nurtured by his gangster Ma,
Fought headaches from the bleakest void;
Then, with psychotic glee, gunned down the law.
Criminality was caused by bad parents.
No longer were the social conditions
Of the Great Depression thought sufficient
To account for gangs during Prohibition.
Cagney drew from decades of playing
Mobsters to embody this new approach —
From his own father’s alcoholic rages
Whose violence was outrageous —
And from dance, Cody’s jittery swaying
To give him bounce when he would pounce.
Cornered atop a chemical plant,
His mother dead, with nothing to live for,
Cody fired at the gas tanks in a mad rant
To blast the world into one giant roar.
That was the fear, after the Second World War,
That a madman with a nuclear strike
Would annihilate everyone in the Cold War
And strontium 90 end all human life.
No one could predict this film’s legacy —
Of suicide bombers, devout fanatics,
Who long to die in religious ecstasy
To keep their culture firmly dogmatic.
Nihilism from a defeated past
Combined with stubborn intransigence —
Those who have nothing left to live for, go
Take out as many as they can when they go.
[Disposable Poem March 10, 2016]