James Cagney actually goes crazy twice in WHITE HEAT. The end scene is justifiably famous, as is the one I’m highlighting – the one where Cody Jarrett goes berserk in the prison mess hall.
I don’t know how much of the following is true – director Raoul Walsh didn’t tell all the extras in the scene how Cagney was going to play it. Or that Cagney told Walsh to put two of the biggest extras playing convicts next to him on the bench so he could use their shoulders to boost himself onto the table.
The latter is a nice story ,but to the right of Cagney was seated Robert Osterloh who wouldn’t be described as a big man.
Talking is forbidden at meal times but when Jarrett hears there is a newly arrived prisoner, he gets a message passed along the line of prisoners sitting at the same side of the long wooden table – “Ask him how my mother is.”
The answer to that question sets off one of the most explosive and memorable scenes in movie history.
As the men pass along the answer, Raoul Walsh has the camera move from one face to the next as they whisper “She’ s dead.”
Osterloh is the one who has to finally tell Cody the bad news.
For a second there is no reaction as the message sinks in. This is a man who is mentally unsound but who is held together by his close relationship with his mother – the only person he trusts and who cares for him when the blinding headaches he gets become unbearable.
As Jarrett reacts instinctively, the only word he utters is “Dead?” . As it sinks in, he picks up the tin cup on the table and smashes it down , starting off an unforgettable few minutes of amazing acting from Cagney.
There is one reaction close-up – of Edmund O’Brien who is sitting opposite Jarrett. Like everyone else, he is stunned.
The several hundred inmates are already silent because of the rules, but there is a stunned stillness from them as they watch this demented man who is unable to cope with the news of his mother’s sudden death.
The horror, the disbelief, the temporary loss of sanity sends Jarrett into a spiral of violent action as he climbs onto the table,with everyone watching ,though he is unaware of them. He wants out of there and nothing will stop him. He staggers down the table and fights anyone who tries to help.
He shrieks out in agony and knocks out several guards who get in his way. He is finally carried off by four of the guards.
The maniacal crying of Jarrett is electrifying.
The whole scene only lasts a few minutes and I read that Raoul Walsh shot it in three hours . I’d hate to think that Cagney had to do it more than once.
Oscar worthy? You bet.