Monday, February 02, 2015

White Heat (1949)

The last of the classic Warner Bros. gangster pictures, with James Cagney in his meanest, toughest role as a tortured, psychotic killer whose only friend his mother. His Cody Jarrett seems interested in a life of crime primarily in that it allows him to kill people, which he does so frequently and without remorse; the money and rewards from the various jobs he pulls off are almost secondary. Virginia Mayo as his wife is at once conniving and sympathetic as she tries to find an escape from Cody's sadistic control. Edmond O'Brien is the undercover cop who ingratiates himself with Cody while in prison, infiltrating his gang and eventually leading to the gangster's downfall. The climactic shoot-out in a nocturnal, brightly-lit California oil refinery is a visually stunning set-piece that reaches a fever pitch under Raoul Walsh's masterful direction and recalls his expertly-staged stand-offs in films such as HIGH SIERRA and COLORADO TERRITORY. It's also an interesting study in contrasts of style and genre, a key transitional film between the classic Depression-era gangster films and the post-war crime dramas, with Cagney giving his old gangster persona a terrifying new psychological dimension, and as much emphasis on the procedures used by the police to bring the criminal to justice.


Joe said...

Do you think that Raoul Walsh helped change the course of Gangster films with this movie.Also, was this Cagneys last gangster film

Matt Barry said...

Yes, between this and his earlier film HIGH SIERRA (with Bogart as an older, wearier gangster) Walsh brought a new dimension to the gangster film and re-invigorated the genre for the 1940s.

It was also Cagney's last major gangster role, though he did appear the following year in the crime drama KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE. Ironically, his final screen appearance was on the opposite side of the law, as New York City Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo in Milos Forman's RAGTIME (1981).