Top Of The World
Recently, I sat down and watched half-a-dozen James Cagney films. Of all the Hollywood tough-guys of the period–Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni–Cagney was the one who impressed me most. He stalked the screen like a caged panther, almost vibrating with pent-up energy.
It came as no surprise when I learned, years ago, that Cagney had started out as a dancer. It was there in the sheer physical grace of his performances; in the way that Cagney, more than any other actor of the period, understood the spatial dynamics of each scene: where to be and how to get there in a way that was economical but rich with subtext.
Reviewing The Roaring Twenties (Cagney’s break-out film) in The Spectator in 1939, Graham Greene wrote:
Mr. Cagney, of the bull-calf brow, is as always a superb and witty actor
David Thompson is worth quoting at length:
When we ask which stars of the golden age have lasted best we think of those who did less – Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, Bogart, John Wayne. You can even work out a theory of star acting which says that, granted a series of set and familiar emotional situations, it was the actors who did the least, or let the picture hang in doubt, who are the most intriguing or eloquent. And these days – when authentic stardom is a rare thing – actors of all sorts strive to be economical, laconic, straight-faced, just looking at their situation, and the idea of being in a movie, as simply or enigmatically as possible.
But then there is Cagney. Consider White Heat, made in 1949, when Jimmy Cagney was 50. As White Heat was in preparation, Cagney made a social visit to the office of Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, who were working on the script. He lay down on the couch in the office, and asked in his dreamy Irish voice: “What are we going to do, fellas?”
The writers explained that this time they were going for something different: not just to show a gangster as a figure of evil, but to show why and where the damage came from.
Cut to a scene in the prison cafeteria. Cody Jarrett (Cagney) is sitting there, eating his dinner, and a message is passed along the line of other prisoners. Director Raoul Walsh does it in a very classy way, the camera simply moving from one whispering face to another. We don’t know the message, but the source of it is a newly arrived prisoner. And Cody has himself passed along the question: “Has he seen my mother?” The answer that comes back, uttered with terrible apprehension by the last man in the line, is: “She’s dead.” Whereupon, Cagney erupts.
One of his greatest fans of all time, Orson Welles, once called Cagney “a displacer of air”. The script that Goff and Roberts had written called for massive grief in Cody. If you gave that scene to some of today’s tough actors – Gene Hackman, Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall – they might give you a hint of physical collapse, there might be a tear. Cagney went crazy.
Years later, there were extras in that scene who professed themselves terrified at what the actor did. He crushes his tin cup. He lets loose a terrible roar or scream. And he becomes consumed with violence. Asked where it came from, Cagney mentioned the memory of his own father in alcoholic fits, and something else seen in a mental hospital. But there was also the imagination that trusted nothing so much as the release of energy.
It’s easy to assume that everyone knows Cagney inside out. Yet in truth, I’m sure the films of the 1930s are a blur now to young audiences who dote on Quentin Tarantino pictures. So I can only urge anyone with a love of cinema to go back to the real thing, the movies Cagney made in the 1930s – the ordinary pictures – when he was no more lethal than Joe Louis in three or four fights a year. You don’t know what the star system could be until you see a dozen or so of these routine glories where Cagney’s smile could be more dangerous than a computer-generated army.
Freeze, motherfuckers…keep your hands where I can see them…good…now, let’s have verse on movie gangsters, movie criminals and movie crime. Here’s an old one that I’ve re-worked (not that it’s helped any):
Top Of The World…
Can’t remember when I first saw
Jimmy Cagney breaking the law;
perhaps The Public Enemy;
the grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face;
even a small boy
knew electric grace.
No surprise to learn
he’d begun as a hoofer,
his balletic ease:
made the blood freeze,
whether slapping some sap,
or planning a kill.
or cackling insane
malevolence in White Heat,
a crazed, Oedipal loon
blowing himself to the moon:
“Top of the world…”.
He was compelling:
I couldn’t look away;
whatever he was selling,
I was glad to pay.