Release Date: September 2nd, 1949 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Written by: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts
Based on: White Heat by Virginia Kellogg
Music by: Max Steiner
Cast: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran
Warner Bros., 114 Minutes
“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” – Cody Jarrett
White Heat takes the gangster genre that made James Cagney famous and marries it to the film-noir style of the 1940s with absolute perfection. Sure, there are a lot of noir movies with gangsters in them but none quite hit the perfect note like this motion picture, a true triumph for all parties involved in its creation and execution.
Having just revisited this after several years, I can’t think of any other actors that could have captured their characters as well as the top three billed stars here.
James Cagney, as great as he was before this, has never been better as a sadistic gangster. It’s as if everything before this movie was training, prepping him for the role of a lifetime and while this might not be his most famous picture, it is my personal favorite and it also comes with the most famous line he ever spoke. He was scary, calculating and had this sort of reptilian body language that kept you on edge, not knowing what and how he was going to react to anything.
Virginia Mayo was an incredible femme fatale in this and while she may at first seem pretty text book, she just has this extra edge to her that pushes her to the forefront of the noir style, as one of the absolute best women to ever exude evilness on the silver screen.
Edmond O’Brien hit all the right notes as the undercover cop sent into prison to infiltrate the gang of Cagney’s Cody Jarrett. He was convincing on both sides of the coin, as a noble cop and a loyal gangster, winning over Jarrett’s trust.
While Raoul Walsh is a stupendous director, he had great help from the script by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts. While I haven’t read the original Virginia Kellogg novel, the duo of Goff and Roberts really crafted a script that moved at a great pace and had several layers worked in, adding more luster and depth to the narrative, as well as fantastic dialogue and intense action scenes that were better than what was the Hollywood norm in the late ’40s. I love the whole sequence towards the end with the police radio cars and the cops using the big map to pinpoint Jarrett’s location before the big finale.
Walsh also benefited for having the right people for the right job in regards to the cinematography. He had Sidney Hickox at his side, who by 1949 already boasted over three decades worth of cinematography experience. Coming into White Heat, he already had some solid credits to his name with his work on To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, All Through the Night and Dark Passage. Being one of the top visual architects of the noir style, Hickox’s work here was no different. The scenes in Jarrett’s jail cell, the prison factory and the big finale all look majestic and are clear examples of how visually magical Hollywood was at the time.
I also can’t ignore the score of Max Steiner, one of the heavyweights of the era. He worked in mellow and melodic tunes in the lighter scenes but went with some real intensity with the bigger action sequences. Steiner could generate a lot of musical flare and his work here added more tension to the biggest scenes in the movie.
White Heat is pretty much a perfect film that has aged incredibly well and is fast paced enough that it will probably resonate with the attention deficit audiences of today, assuming they can put their phones down for more than fifteen seconds. This comes in at just under two hours but it uses that time well and is actually a great character study of Cagney’s Jarrett character, his ticks and his skewed world view.
Pairs well with: Cagney’s original claim to fame Public Enemy, as well as Angels With Dirty Faces, ‘G’ Men, The Asphalt Jungle, The Big Heat and Smart Money.