Monday, August 27, 2012

Review: White Heat (1949)

James Cagney is one guy you don't want to mess with.

Directed by Raoul Walsh
Produced by Louis F. Edelman
Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (screenplay); Virginia Kellogg (story)
Starring James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien, and Margaret Wycherly


Walsh's classic gangster film details the story of Cody Jarrett (Cagney), a tough criminal with a soft spot for his loving, protective mother (Wycherly). After cutting a deal to serve minimal prison time, Cody's mother takes over things on the outside, while he runs things from the inside. But a cop named Hank Fallon (O'Brien) goes undercover in an attempt to bring Cody into his confidence. When Fallon saves Cody's life, the pair grow close, and Cody soon learns that his mother is dead. They break out of prison with some other inmates, and they team up his old gang. His wife Verna (Mayo) rejoins him as well, having had an affair with Cody's #2 man Big Ed (Steve Cochran), and Cody takes care of him. Reunited, Cody and his men plan a heist on a chemical plant, which Fallon leaks to the police. Once they get inside the plant, the police surround them, and Cody is forced to choose between his life and his legacy.

This great film is in the same league as Walsh's other notable film-noirs, such as The Roaring Twenties (1939) and High Sierra (1941). Not only are there double-crosses and high stakes, but the relationships between these characters are also well-written for this era. The script does a great job of weaving a detailed texture to this genre film, which puts it above the level of other (lesser) gangster movies. At the time of its production, Cagney hadn't played a gangster since Twenties ten years earlier, and it's clear that he retained his tough-guy persona for this popular performance. As Cody, he is cruel, disturbed, reckless, soft, and slick as a whistle. O'Brien plays "friend" and foe well, and Mayo has no trouble being the hardened wife. Wycherly also turns in a solid performance as "Ma", a smart woman who loves her son unconditionally. With a fine script and good performances, Walsh's film is an essential for classic movie fans.

Oscar Tally: Nomination for Best Motion Picture Story


  1. It sounds like this movie is a little richer -- in terms of character development and dynamics among the characters -- than your typical old-time film noir. :-) Thanks, Josh!

    1. Yeah. There's a lot I didn't touch on here, but it's definitely one of the best noirs in term of character development.

      You're welcome! :)

  2. UGH, LOVE THIS FILM! I think that Cagney should have an Oscar for this, and Mayo should have been nominated. Such a RICH film (I like that use of the word here). Great write up!

    1. Thanks! Great use of that word. Cagney and Mayo are terrific, but I'm not yet sure if I can bump Lamberto Maggiorani off for The Bicycle Thief (or Bicycle Thieves - I wish they'd settle on a title). Currently, I'd nominate Cagney for this, The Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces, and The Roaring Twenties, and I'd give him one win for Yankee Doodle Dandy. If I do switch, I'll update things on here accordingly.