Raoul Walsh's WHITE HEAT, thinking the intense, violent story of gangster Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) wouldn't really be my kind of movie.
However, in recent years I've gained increasing appreciation for several of the cast members, including Edmond O'Brien, Steve Cochran, and Virginia Mayo in addition to Cagney, and so I was quite enthused when I had the opportunity to review the film as part of the new Blu-ray set Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics, released this week on May 21st.
My verdict on WHITE HEAT: It's a terrific movie which grabs the viewer from the kinetic opening train robbery to the explosive "Top of the world, Ma!" finale. I thoroughly enjoyed it. There are superb performances by the entire cast; it's hard to believe, in retrospect, that Cagney and Mayo didn't rate Oscar nominations.
Cagney's Jarrett is a psychopathic killer who thinks nothing of ordering one of his henchmen to basically "put down" another of the gang who is too seriously injured to travel. Cody is married to the gorgeous if rather uncouth Verna (Mayo), but his heart really belongs to his mother (Margaret Wycherly), to whom he has a strong fixation. And, as it happens, Verna is making eyes behind Cody's back with his lieutenant, Big Ed (Cochran).
Cody develops a plan to escape a murder rap by confessing to a minor crime in another part of the country, and the feds, led by Philip Evans (John Archer), decided to send an undercover detective (O'Brien) into prison to bunk with Cody, win his trust, and solve the train robbery and murders.
THE KILLERS (1946), D.O.A. (1950), and 711 OCEAN DRIVE (1950).
Verna is glamorous on the surface, but Mayo bravely allowed her character to be filmed in an unflattering light, including a scene where she's snoring! Verna has an interesting trajectory, wanting to leave Cody but giving up on the idea in order to live; she then hits the bottle. Mayo captures Verna's pathetic side along with her more calculating and lethal aspects. Cochran likewise makes a strong impression as Big Ed, who thinks he's smart but unfortunately isn't quite smart enough to match wits with Cody.
WHITE HEAT was filmed in black and white by Sid Hickox. The screenplay of this 114-minute film was by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts.
The Blu-ray print is absolutely gorgeous. The film is a visual pleasure as well as dramatically compelling.
In addition to the new Blu-ray, WHITE HEAT has previously had a standard DVD release as part of the Warner Gangsters Collection, Vol. I and a TCM Greatest Gangsters Collection. It's also had multiple releases on VHS.
The film and the Blu-ray are both highly recommended. More details on the Blu-ray set are posted here. Thanks to Warner Bros. for making the collection available for review.