James Cagney returns to the genre that gave him his break in White Heat in which he plays a ruthless and brutal gangster and leader of the Cody Jarrett criminal gang. Having robbed a train and leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, Jarrett (Cagney) hands himself in to the law for a lesser charge in order to avoid the gas chamber. To catch him for the train robbery the cops send Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) undercover into the prison to attempt to befriend the fiend and gain vital information and perhaps a confession. When Jarrett breaks out though he takes Fallon with him and the cops begin their chase.
A few years ago White Heat was voted the forth best gangster film of all time by the AFI behind The Godfather I and II and Goodfellas. It was for this reason and my recent discovery of James Cagney that I sought the film out and wasn’t disappointed. The film has certainly aged and isn’t as violent or gruesome as its modern counterparts but a fantastic story and fine acting make it one of the best gangster flicks ever in my opinion.
The plot and characters are multi layered and deep. The central characters are rarely if ever one dimensional and feel well fleshed out. James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett is a well realised gangster who suffers from acute but infrequent mental illness and has an oddly close relationship with his mother (Margaret Wycherly). For him there is no one in his life to compare with her and a bit of brief back story which is gradually released helps the audience to understand the relationship further. His mother is a true matriarch and is as much a part of the gang as any other member. The relationship is also behind the film’s defining line of dialogue “Made it, ma! Top of the world!” Cagney’s Jarrett is meaner and more vicious than many of the characters from the black and white era. In the likes of Scarface and The Public Enemy the gangsters sometimes have redeeming features, Jarrett has none. He is a villain from beginning to end.
The plot has several clever moments and ideas which really impressed me. I liked the idea of putting a cop on the inside to infiltrate the gang and while this is a fairly common idea it was done really well here. A lot of thought went into the planning and execution and the acting was terrific on both parts. The second idea I enjoyed was how the cops tracked Jarrett and his gang. Using parts from an old radio they were able to send a signal from the gang’s vehicle which was intercepted by two police cars that could in turn use the signal’s location to triangulate the crook’s position. Again this isn’t anything overly technical or new, even for the era, but I thought it was a fine idea that used for what was in 1949 some pretty modern technology. The two ideas mentioned above help to prevent the film from becoming a simple chase flick but add several other dimensions to it.
On a technical level the film is very accomplished. Its Director Raoul Walsh was a founding member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and as well as directing also starred as John Wilkes Booth in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Walsh’s direction is assured and very much of its time but works really well with the story. The half fades and rear projection give it a distinct yet very early 50s look and the grainy black and white, L.A. setting, Femme fetale character and tortured gangster make the movie a classic example of film noir. Talking of the film’s location, it was interesting to compare L.A. to the Chaplin films I love so much and modern films. Seeing all three really gives a sense of the city’s development. Something else which works well in White Heat is Max Steiner’s score. It creeps up on you and is wonderfully tense and much like the direction is very much of its time. Steiner incidentally also wrote the scores for Gone With the Wind and Casablanca.
James Cagney leads the film with a terrific performance. He shows very little humanity behind his harsh exterior but when confronted with sad news of his mother, breaks down like a baby who’s lost its dummy. Virginia Mayo plays her part brilliantly and is wonderfully aloof and seductive. Margaret Wycherly is harsh and overbearing and provides great focus for Cagney’s endeavours. Edmond O’Brien rarely looks the part of a convict but provides intelligence and charm and has some good moments with Cagney. Steve Cochran plays the swarve villain very well too. Overall White Heat may lack the blood and guts of a modern gangster movie but it more than holds its own in the story department. Strong central performances help to set in motion a fantastic and original plot which ends with a bang and left me more than satisfied.
- The locations being radioed in are completely accurate and Los Angeles City Hall even appears on screen at precisely the right moment.
- Filmed before special effects could accurately recreate them, real bullets were used to break windows and show bullets hitting the ground near characters. Although low velocity and fired by a skilled marksman, Cagney was missed by just inches in the final scene.
- The final shoot-out takes place in a real gas plant in Torrence, California, Quentin Tarantino's home town.