Film Review: White Heat (1949)

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

Review:

“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 NotThe Big SleepAll 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.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: Cagney’s original claim to fame Public Enemy, as well as Angels With Dirty Faces, ‘G’ MenThe Asphalt JungleThe Big Heat and Smart Money.

Film Review: The Public Enemy (1931)

Also known as: Beer and Blood (working title), Enemies of the Public (UK)
Release Date: April 23rd, 1931 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: William A. Wellman
Written by: Kubec Glasmon, John Bright
Based on: Beer and Blood by John Bright, Kubec Glasmon
Music by: David Mendoza, Vitaphone Orchestra
Cast: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Donald Cook

Warner Bros., 83 Minutes

Review:

“You are different, Tommy. Very different. And I’ve discovered it isn’t only a difference in manner and outward appearances. It’s a difference in basic character. The men I know – and I’ve known dozens of them – oh, they’re so nice, so polished, so considerate. Most women like that type. I guess they’re afraid of the other kind. I thought I was too, but you’re so strong. You don’t give, you take. Oh, Tommy, I could love you to death.” – Gwen Allen

As much as I love Edward G. Robinson, I still can’t deny that James Cagney was the king of the classic gangster movie. The Public Enemy is hands down, one of the most well-known gangster films of all-time and for very good reason.

What’s actually most interesting about this film, is it is based on an unpublished book by two former Chicago street thugs that actually personally witnessed some of Al Capone’s violent actions against rival gangs. For a 1930s film, it did have a real feeling of authenticity and a grittiness that set it apart from some of the other gangster films of the time.

James Cagney is exceptional in this and in several key scenes, you don’t even need dialogue, you just read his face and see where he is going and it usually isn’t anywhere good.

The cinematography of Devereaux Jennings was really good and it made this feel more refined than similar pictures. That scene towards the end of Cagney’s Tom Powers crawling through the rain is amazing and conveyed more emotion than the scene would have had otherwise.

I also like the ending a lot. It leaves you thinking that this guy has reformed and he may have but what seems like a happy ending comes with a twist, as Tom Powers is kidnapped from the hospital and then found murdered.

This ending almost defied the old school morality code but at the same time, this was a pre-code film. Anyway, Powers had to pay for his crimes in some form and he does, despite his apparent change of heart after reconciling with his family.

The Public Enemy really made James Cagney’s career and he would do a slew of similar films but if you’ve got a niche, exploit it and make money. That’s what Cagney did and it was off of the back of this film’s massive success.

Without this, the gangster genre might have died out more quickly and it also might not have lead to the film-noir of the 1940s. We also probably wouldn’t have gotten the classic crime picture White Heat or at the very least, that film would have been drastically different.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: White HeatLittle Caesar, the original Scarface and Smart Money.