Friday, May 24, 2013

Tonight's Movie: White Heat (1949)

I'd long resisted seeing 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.

As expected, Cagney is completely entertaining in a no-holds-barred performance as Jarrett, but he's also surrounded by a deep cast who are all on the top of their games. Edmond O'Brien is subdued yet quick-thinking and confident as the FBI man on the inside of the prison, and he gives the audience someone to identify with and root for amidst a sea of lowlifes. O'Brien certainly has great gangster/noir credentials, which also include 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.

Released in the late '40s, this gangster film crosses into noir territory, particularly in the scary, shadowy nighttime sequence where Cody goes after Verna and Big Ed. At times the movie is almost a docu-noir; since I love procedurals, the depiction of how law enforcement follows Cody using radio waves was fascinating.

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 supporting cast includes Fred Clark, Wally Cassell, and Paul Guilfoyle, who meets his end late in the movie in one of the film's more memorable scenes; it's a great example of less being more. No blood, no guts, but wow, that moment with Jarrett "letting some air in" to the car trunk stays with you.

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.


Blogger Vienna said...

Cagney deserved an Oscar. What a blazing performance. And Margaret Wycherley so good as his scheming mother.
The scene I will always remember is the one where Cody hears of his mother's death.
And of course that iconic ending.

12:10 AM  
Blogger Silver Screenings said...

This is one of my fave movies. Cagney is electrifying in this role, isn't he? He deserved all the accolades he received for this film.

Of course, the supporting cast is fab, too!

1:05 PM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

Laura - I love what you said about Edmond O'Brien's character. I think all of the gangsters are too despicable to care for and O'Brien really is the person we latch on to. That's a wonderful observation! I enjoyed this movie and it was my first time watching itt oo.

6:06 AM  

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