Got an itchy Oedipal rash? Whatever you do – don’t scratch it! It can only lead to murder and mayhem, crime and punishment. And that way, as we know, lies madness. At least, this is the fabula as it unfolds in several cinematic accounts. The volatile chemistry of excessive, unresolved mother love and poor (single mother/absent father) parenting skills can be explosive, and in the case of poor little Jarrett Cody in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), literally explosive: he ends his days at the centre of a massive explosion. ‘Made it Ma. Top of the world!’ he shouts as the giant gas tank where he makes his last stand ignites and blows him to Kingdom Come – where he will no doubt be able to enjoy sitting on Mama’s knee again.
Two differently nuanced – but none too subtle – accounts of mama love and its inevitable and inexorable pathway to criminality can be experienced in White Heat and Roger Corman’s 1970 Oedipal opus, Bloody Mama. Both stories place the source of the criminal sons’ behaviour clearly at the feet of the dominating mater.
This accounting of the environmental causes of crime – being ‘made bad’ – is one of several psychodynamic themes that dominate the criminal film genre. The criminologist Nicole Rafter has suggested in her book Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society that movies on the causes of crime fall into three categories: the just mentioned ‘made bad’ environmental category, the ‘born bad’ biological category and the ‘twisted psyche’ abnormal psychology category, which although it is a stand-alone classification can overlap with either of the other two, as seen in both of the films under discussion.
Another common point between them is the source material on which they are loosely based: the criminal life of Ma Barker and her boys. Several film storylines emanate from real-life gangster stories, and the headlines made by the Barker gang caught the public imagination with its violence and hints of unhealthy family relations. Ma Barker was active in the gang with her son, Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker, his brother Fred and their friend Alvin Karpis. Ma and Fred Barker died together resisting arrest in January 1935, gunned down by the FBI. Arthur was shot dead a few years later trying to escape from Alcatraz. Famously, his last words are supposed to have been, ‘I’m shot to hell’, which echoes Cody’s last exit words. In his autobiography, James Cagney, who played Cody, comments: ‘The original script of White Heat was very formula… For some kind of variant, I said to the writers, â€œLet’s fashion this after Ma Barker and her boys, and make Cody a psychotic to account for his actions.â€’ In the film, Cody is an epileptic, mother-obsessed criminal who, while married to a gorgeous moll, only has eyes (and ears) for ‘Ma’. He confides in her, plots with her, and always takes her advice over anyone else’s. She showers affection and approval upon him as he does upon her. There is no room in this relationship for any third parties and when his wife runs off with his first lieutenant Cody shrugs it off – he still has his mother.
His undoing, however, is brought about by finding a mother replacement – he loses Ma while serving his prison stretch – in the figure of Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) who is an undercover cop assigned the task of buddying up to Cody and getting him to talk and incriminate himself. They share a cell, and while initially suspicious of Fallon, Cody comes to trust and then rely on him. Fallon saves him from another inmate’s murderous attack, then soothes and rubs his neck when he has an epileptic fit – having faked headaches as a child to gain the attention of his mother he eventually developed the condition. Later, Fallon helps him following his berserk dining hall fit triggered off when he hears of his mother’s death – his wife shot her in the back. When Jarrett makes his escape from prison he insists on taking Fallon along with him. Back in the gang he favours his now best and most trusted intimate, Fallon, with the exact same cut of the criminal takings as he used to give his beloved Ma. The proxy mother scenario is complete. It can be left to the present generation of Queer theorists to do with that text as they like.
The film adheres to the pre-war characterisation of a criminal’s over-indulgent mother (and lack of male authority figure: we are told that Jarrett’s father was put into an insane asylum) as Ma Jarrett pampers, indulges, nurses and soothes wild Cody. What is unusual in this account is the degree to which she encourages and aids her son in his criminal doings, in addition to counselling him in how to deal with ambitious and unruly underlings. This is no good boy gone bad who breaks a mother’s heart, this is a match made in Oedipal hell. Finally, bereft of Ma and betrayed by Fallon, the lone, crazed Cody is trapped in a chemical plant during his final heist. He ascends to the top of a gas tank, is shot by Fallon and finally pumps lead into the gas tank, which ignites it. He dies in a spectacular fireworks of an explosion that causes a massive mushroom cloud to appear, which, as many commentators have noted, looks like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb – a concern very much on American minds during the post-war years. With an emphasis on explicit and cold-blooded violence, extreme emotional displays, suggestive sexual scenes and Oedipal complexes played out, this is certainly a movie that shows how the Production Code of censorship was breaking down in the more world-weary post-war years.
By the time Roger Corman came to make his ‘Bonnie and Clyde meets the Manson family’ drive-in classic, Bloody Mama, in 1970, there was – in terms of freedom of expression – everything to play for. The strict Production Code of 1934 had been abandoned for a regulatory classification system in 1966 and movies – which had been denied ‘Freedom of Speech’ protection in a 1915 decision – were, in 1952, included under that constitutional safeguard. This paved the way for far more adult themes, topics, sexualities and addictions to be explored on the cinema screen. Corman took full advantage to probe the Oedipal psyche as could only be hinted at in the dark dreams of Jarrett Cody.
Corman took the story of Ma Barker and her sons and fashioned a twisted tale of familial relationships, desires and dysfunctions. Ma Barker and her boys inhabit a backwoods world of incest, homosexuality, drugs and murder – a pretty perfect drive-in movie concoction. Played with wild sensual abandon by the always reliably on-the-edge actress Shelley Winters, Kate ‘Ma’ Barker is a depraved, transgressive, neurotic and alluring harridan of near-grotesque proportions. The film opens with a barely pubescent Barker being raped by her father while her brothers hold her down. ‘Don’t know why you ain’t hospitable, Kate,’ the old man declares, ‘blood’s thicker than water’. We hear the ravished girl then vowing that one day she would have sons of her own to love and protect her. Flash forward to the present day – far-fetched and far from historical accuracy – and we see her giving baths to her grown-up sons, sharing beds with them, seducing her other son’s bi-sexual lover, making sensual overtures to another son’s girlfriend and finally trying to seduce a kidnap victim – an older, strong male type who threatens to challenge her matriarchal dominance over the boys. What a steamy Oedipal stew is on the boil here.
Naturally, all the misfits come to very bloody dead ends and what is so noticeably different from the conventions of pre-war gangster films is the emphatic shift away from ‘my mother never loved me’ as an explanation for the sons’ criminal behaviour to ‘my mother loved me too much’, which came to dominate contemporary discussions about juvenile delinquents and other moral trespassers. In both these films, these momma’s boys are either indulged, spoiled, molly-coddled (even aided and abetted in their crimes) and given too much infantile attention or, as in Bloody Mama, all of the above with sexual favours thrown in. As in many criminal films that attempt to ‘explain’ this aberrant behaviour, the subtleties of psychotherapeutic theory are abandoned wholesale and reduced to the one-size-fits-all primal scream, ‘Blame the Mother!’
Apparently, all that Jarrett Cody and the Barker boys needed was a good old-fashioned fatherly thrashing to sort that itchy rash out.
James B Evans
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Buy Bloody Mama [DVD]  from Amazon