As a longtime fan of gangster movies, I find it odd that I just saw White Heat (1949, dir. Raoul Walsh) barely a week ago for the first time. Admittedly, I was never in any rush to see this film because I felt that I already had a solid handle on the genre, particularly in terms of its 30's/40's form. After all, if you've seen one James Cagney gangster film, then you've seen 'em all. However, I can honestly say that I was wrong about this one. I profess that I was cleansed of any preconceived notions I had retained from previous experience as White Heat delivered a ripe plot built around a deceivingly simple premise: "coppers" versus robbers.
Instead of being the typical gangster picture that focuses on the rise and fall of a charismatic gangster, White Heat offers the viewer the opportunity to witness an intelligent cat and mouse game that shows an even distribution of strategic game plays between the police force and the gangsters. In fact, through its characters and carefully laid plot devices, White Heat seems to resemble a more recent gangster movie, Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006) -- my apologies to those who prefer the original 2002 version from Hong Kong, Infernal Affairs -- rather than its own fun yet predictable contemporaries. Both White Heat and The Departed appear to be unique in that they forego the strict chronicling of one gangster's trajectory in favor of featuring the intricacies of the struggle between both sides of the law.
A key tool that aids the otherwise under-represented cops in this fight is the important means by which they gather vital information on Cagney's Cody Jarrett and his gang. In this case, the "means" comes in the form of an undercover agent named Hank Fallon, played by Edmond O'Brien. Going deep undercover as convicted criminal Vic Pardo, Fallon is tasked with becoming close friends with the mentally unstable Cody Jarrett in order to discover how Jarrett gets his stolen cash laundered. Getting close to Jarrett requires Fallon/Pardo to not only earn his trust, but to keep it as well. While trust is initially gained through the single act of Fallon/Pardo thwarting a hit on Jarrett's life in the prison workroom, the maintenance of that trust involves greater commitment. Fallon's commitment undergoes particularly hard testing as he later goes on the run with Jarrett and becomes a witness/accessory to many of Jarrett's crimes, up to and including murder.
Just as Fallon is powerless to prevent himself from being thrust into incriminating situations while working as a mole, Leonardo DiCaprio's undercover policeman in The Departed, Billy Costigan, faces a nearly identical ordeal (for the sake of a direct comparison, Matt Damon's gangster mole in the police force will be excluded from this discussion). Both Fallon and Costigan find it necessary to fully immerse themselves in the shady business of the head gangsters they eventually hope to take down, showing that they are not above using deception and morally questionable behavior to achieve their desired ends. The unorthodox methods exhibited by these undercover cops creates close competition on a more equal playing field between the cops and the gangsters; Fallon and Costigan constitute a larger refusal on the part of the cops to be pigeon-holed as one-dimensional representations of law and order. A noteworthy difference between the two moles is how their final fates are decided according to the acceptable dictates of movie story-telling of their respective time periods: Costigan never returns to being a cop and is killed before he can see himself restored to his rightful identity, while Fallon rejoins the police just in time to shoot Jarrett before the movie ends. Despite this wide disparity between the years 1949 and 2006 regarding the moral ambiguity of cops (1949 allows for no question of police morality, while 2006 keeps the issue open-ended and ambiguous), both films display the cops relying heavily on an undercover agent to drive much of the action against the gangsters.
Perhaps even more impressive than the employment of Hank Fallon as a mole is the general use of stealth and deceit in the careful plans executed throughout White Heat by both Cody Jarrett and the police, led by Philip Evans. Schemes are concocted regularly on both sides; some attempts are successful, while others are foiled. Success rates notwithstanding, all of the schemes managed to maintain my interest in the film in the absence of straightforward violence. For me, Cody Jarrett's most impressive moment comes early in the film when he willingly goes to jail for another man's crime with a light sentence, because it gives him an alibi for his own crime that would surely earn him a seat in the gas chamber. Jarrett's clever evasion of the law through his false surrender is one of two intellectual peaks for him, the other high involving a "Trojan Horse" gas truck (an overused yet consistently effective ruse) near the very end of the film.
As for the cops, I found their various techniques to be more entertaining as they are responsible for creating a majority of the tension. One particularly simple tactic involves a tracking system that allows Evans and his cops to tail Cody's mother, Ma Jarrett, as she drives back to Cody's motel room. The police start by splitting up into three cars, A, B and C, that spread out onto different streets while continuing to drive parallel to each other and communicating over the radio. This parallel driving and communication system creates a dragnet that prevents Ma Jarrett from losing the three-pronged tail by turning onto an adjacent street. The entire scene consists of cuts between shots of Ma looking over her shoulder and shots of each of the pursuing police cars. Tension builds as faster cuts show the cops closing in until Ma finally escapes by pulling a reckless maneuver.
After this initial defeat, Evans devises a more sophisticated tracking system that relies on the intersection of oscillating waves coming from modified radios to pinpoint the route and final destination of Cody Jarrett. In another interesting departure from most gangster films, I didn't experience the trip solely from Jarrett's point of view, but rather I also watched the police chart the progress of his "Trojan Horse" based on the wave readings back at headquarters. This time the tension that comes with the fateful movement of the gangster towards his end is felt on both sides as the police once again compete with the gangster in clever design and for recognizable screen time. A similar sting operation scene is rigged in The Departed, which features obviously more advanced camera surveillance and cell phone communication. Even though the gadgets may always be at the mercy of the next upgrade, the game remains the same: the cops chase and the robbers run.