Saturday, May 24, 2008

Target #211: White Heat (1949, Raoul Walsh)

TSPDT placing: #257
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Written by: Virginia Kellogg (story), Ivan Goff (screenplay), Ben Roberts (screenplay)
Starring: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran, John Archer, Wally Cassell, Fred Clark

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

When it comes to gangsters, nobody could play 'em quite like James Cagney. White Heat (1949) is often considered to feature his finest performance, and the film certain delivers the promised thrills and suspense. Disturbed, violent and volatile, Cody Jarrett is a dangerous crook with a short fuse, and, for the dedicated undercover detective who has secured the criminal's trust, a single blunder could betray his identity, and the game would be up. Raoul Walsh, who had directed Cagney on three previous occasions, was well-versed in the gangster genre, and had already imbued it with shades of early noir in the star-making Humphrey Bogart picture, High Sierra (1941). Cagney, after acclaimed performances in The Public Enemy (1931), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), had taken a decade-long recess from playing a gangster, and, as Cody Jarrett, he exploded onto the screen with more intensity than ever. Exhibiting an unhealthy intimacy with his overbearing mother, Jarrett's extreme mental sickness is most memorably observed in his final deranged words: "Made it, Ma. Top of the world!"

Unlike some gangster pictures, which tend to take a few minutes to swing into gear, White Heat opens with a daring railway robbery, in which Jarrett and his gang murder four innocent men and flee with thousands of dollars in cash. In order to escape the gas chamber, the master-criminal surrenders to the authorities and claims responsibility for a minor hotel heist, receiving 1-3 years imprisonment but eluding suspicions that he played a role in the bloody train robbery. The detectives in charge, however, remain unconvinced, and dedicated undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien) is sent to the prison to gain Jarrett's trust and acquire evidence of his involvement in the crime. Meanwhile, opportunistic femme fatale, Verna (Virginia Mayo), plays a deadly game with treacherous associate Big Ed (Steve Cochran), while Jarrett's predatory mother (Margaret Wycherly) seethes ominously in the shadows. When Jarrett and a gang of lackeys stage an exciting jail-break, Fallon attempts to alert the authorities to his latest movements – but this felon isn't going to take failure lying down.
White Heat played an important role in the development of the heist picture sub-genre, and, like Walsh's High Sierra (1941) years earlier, paved the way for the classic and influential narrative formula to be found in John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950). With Cagney always brimming with pent-up violent energy, his character consistently maintains a state of extreme volatility – his mental breakdown during the prison meal is gripping and realistic – and, as a result, the story never allows the viewer to flag their concentration. Edmond O'Brien is also excellent as the honest undercover investigator who earns Jarrett's trust before betraying it, and there's a wonderful moral ambiguity in the sense that we, as the audience, have grown so attached to the charismatic and unpredictable villain that we're almost cheering for his success. That Cody Jarrett is doomed from the very beginning is a fact forever present in our minds, and that's what makes his inevitable downfall even more tragic, devastating and unforgettable. At that moment, James Cagney really was at the top of the world.

Currently my #2 film of 1949:
1) The Third Man (Carol Reed)
2) White Heat (Raoul Walsh)
3) Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer)
4) A Run for Your Money (Charles Frend)
5) Nora inu {Stray Dog} (Akira Kurosawa)


ressot3 said...

I think I saw the end of this on TV once...Cagney was excellent, from what I remember. I still haven't seen him in any complete movie, though. I feel incomplete. :(

Actually, it might not have been this one. It had Bogart in it, I think. I don't know which movie it was...

but Cagney was still excellent.

ackatsis said...

If it had both Bogey and Cagney, then your film was "Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)."
I love that one - it makes my top 50 (or somewhere around there).

ackatsis said...

I haven't seen all that many films starring Cagney, either, but he's excellent in:
* Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
* White Heat (1949)
* One, Two, Three (1961)

ackatsis said...

Just as a postscript to my previous post, it appears that Bogart and Cagney co-starred on multiple occasions. Aside from the film I mentioned, they were both also in:
* Oklahoma Kid, The (1939)
* Roaring Twenties, The (1939)

J Luis Rivera said...

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ackatsis said...

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My most recent horror movie was Andrew Leman's "The Call of Cthulhu (2005)," a fun little throw-back to F.W. Murnau. Full review:

Have you seen this one?