(Quick reminder before I start this review. I just want to remind all of my regular readers that I have another film studies class this semester. And it’s all gangster movies. And we’re starting with the classics. That’s why there’s two James Cagney movies in such short succession like this. The last was The Public Enemy and now we’ve moved on nearly twenty years to a film that’s just as influential and celebrated. But more on that later. That little aside was for anyone who might be getting burnt out on the gangster movies. And I hate to tell you, but The Untouchables is the next thing in my Netflix Instant queue. But that’s the random blog gods. Not my class. Seacrest out.)
“Made it, ma! Top of the world!” It’s one of the most famous (and misquoted) lines in all of cinematic history from one of the medium’s most famous closing scenes. And it comes from a heralded classic of both the gangster and film noir genres (though by the mid 1940s, the two were inseparable). Director Raoul Walsh’s 1949 crime epic, White Heat, contains one of the most legendary villainous performances in film history from James Cagney as a man at the top of his game, and having seen two of his films in short succession, it’s easy to say that he may be one of the most influential performers of all time. Though certain aspects of White Heat devolve into a dull police procedural, this film easily represents one of the high watermarks of the entire gangster genre, and Cagney’s explosive performance (visual pun intended) cements his legacy as one of Hollywood’s greatest leading men.
White Heat is the masterfully constructed tale of the psychotic and mama-obsessed Cody Jarrett (James Cagney). Leader of a group of then modern day bandits, Cody Jarrett is a mentally unhinged murderous madman with the mother of all oedipal complexes (once again, pun sort of intended) thanks to his equally evil mother, Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly). When Cody, Ma, and Cody’s gold-digging wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) finally realize they’re trapped by the law, Cody concocts a plan to get himself sent to jail for a different crime than the one he’s being accused of (to make an alibi for the actual capitol offense). But the police know the truth, and they send in undercover cop Hank Fallon (A Double Life‘s Edmond O’Brien) to figure out where Cody’s stashed the money from his last heist and to catch Cody’s high-level fence. When Cody busts out of jail dragging Hank with him (as he’s become the only man Cody trusts), it all leads to a fiery finale.
If I thought Cagney was great in The Public Enemy, he just blew me away in this film. Alongside slowly unhinged performances like Nicholson in The Shining or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Cagney manages to envelope the audience in Cody Jarrett’s madness. With his headaches (and possible epilepsy) and schizophrenic mood, Cody Jarrett is a being of pure, destructive energy, and Cagney taps into something dark and deep to provide the chills. Without wanting to spoil a plot point, there’s a scene in the prison where Jarrett gets bad news that causes Jarrett to (pardon my french) flip the f*** out. He loses his shit. And none of the extras in the scene knew what Cagney was going to do. And the pure look of shock on their faces in that scene is real as they begin to wonder if James Cagney hasn’t already lost his damn mind.
And unlike The Public Enemy, there were few if any botched supporting performances to bog the film down. Edmund O’Brien was surprisingly endearing as the undercover cop even as the scenes with his peers threatened to destroy the film’s pacing. Virginia Mayo was delightfully crude and vulgar as Cody Jarrett’s simple-minded femme not so fetale. Margaret Wyncherly was the perfect proto-Livia Soprano as Cody’s domineering and manipulative mother. In fact, Edmund O’Brien and Margaret Wyncherly brought so much presence to the film that although they weren’t able to compete with James Cagney for the audience’s undivided attention, they ensured that any scene focused on them didn’t leave you wishing that Cagney was still on screen.
And man. This film was violent. For a film from the Hays Code era, Warner Bros. really got away with a lot of (for the time) shocking scenes of destruction and wanton mayhem. Before the film started, my film studies professor put up the film’s total death count which was at 17. That may seem tame in an era of Die Hard‘s and zombie movie revivals, but for the time, they may have well just spent the whole film massacring cops and robbers. And Virginia Mayo’s Verna snores, drinks, spits out her gum and generally doesn’t act like a lady at all. It destroyed the notion of what a mother was supposed to be in classic cinema. And the film builds to an absolutely rousing climax that left me on the edge of my seat even though I more or less knew how it was all going to ultimately go down.
And yeah, the parts that are told through the point of view of Hank Fallon’s partners in the feds aren’t as gripping as either Hank’s attempts to not be discovered by Cody Jarret or Cody’s simple attempts to stay alive and get his vengeance. But, for a film that is 63 years old, White Heat has aged spectacularly. After just two of his films, Cagney has proven to me why his legacy exists in the first place, and White Heat reminds me why film noir is a regular contender for my favorite film genre. This film is likely the peak of Cagney’s career and he probably never did anything half this good after this (I can’t remember any other high profile roles after this of his), and for real movie lovers, it’s a must-see. Gangster cinema at some of its finest.
Final Score: A-