White Heat

Dir: Raoul Walsh, 1949. Starring: James Cagney, Margaret Wycherly, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien. Classics.
White Heat

If you know anyone afflicted with a phobia towards classic film this might be a good place to start them. White Heat is one of the darkest, funniest American films ever made with tension as thick as a hangman’s noose. Did you enjoy the film The Dark Knight? Do you remember the opening bank heist scene where the Joker kills off each accomplice as soon as they have served their purpose? Did you like that scene? Of course you did. It’s the best scene of the whole film. Well, White Heat is kind of like the bank heist scene from The Dark Knight. It runs on that kind of gleeful nihilistic energy. It’s more film noir than gangster film, though it is so well performed and well directed that it doesn’t really matter what you call it because it’s in a class by itself.

James Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a psychotic gang leader who plans and executes heists and seems to kill as much for his own kicks as for necessity. Of all the swaggering maniacs Cagney played, Cody Jarrett is his masterpiece. He’s older and slightly heavier than the lithe gangster characters Cagney played in his youth but Cody Jarrett is much more honestly twisted than anything Cagney had done before. He is the terrifying monster lurking beneath Cagney’s portrayals of charming psychopaths. Cody is a mama’s boy. He has headaches that make him run for his mother’s lap. She knows how to comfort him and how to manipulate him.

As cold as Cody is his mother might just be that much colder. Played by Margaret Wycherly, Ma Jarrett is always ready to reassure her son and to advise him on whom next to bump off. Virginia Mayo plays Cody’s bored and promiscuous wife Verna. Cody terrifies Verna but that still doesn’t make Verna very sympathetic. She’s pure femme fatale; sleeping with one of his own guys and planning a murder that will hit too close to home. Edmond O’Brien plays an undercover cop who infiltrates the Jarrett gang. Cody’s one slight nod to his humanity is to mistakenly put his trust in this double cross. Even as Cody sees that he’s outnumbered he keeps ratcheting up the body count before expiring in one of the darkest and most iconic climaxes in movie history.

White Heat represents something of an end and a beginning for Hollywood film. It rounds out the famous Warner gangster film cycle with the most incendiary take on the genre yet. At the same time it points the way towards a grittier kind of cinema that will influence filmmakers all over the world—from the French New Wave directors to Film Noir iconoclasts such as Robert Aldrich whose own film Kiss Me Deadly will take American crime cinema to even more out there extremes just a few years later. Still, White Heat is just as shocking, dark, and hysterically funny today as it must have been when it first screened.


White Heat was nominated for an Oscar for Best Story.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jun 22, 2011 1:13pm
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