Jimmy Cagney could pretty much do it all, playing light comedy parts ("Johnny Come Lately," "Mister Roberts," "One, Two, Three"), song-and-dance men ("Yankee Doodle Dandy," "The Seven Little Foys"), crime-fighters ("G Men"), straight dramatic duties ("The Time of Your Life," "The Gallant Hours," "Ragtime"), and even Shakespearean weavers ("A Midsummer Night's Dream") with equal aplomb in a career that spanned over half a century. But it was undoubtedly for his gangster roles that he is best known, from "The Public Enemy" through "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye." And right there at the top of the list is "White Heat," his most intense gangster portrayal of them all.
In his book "The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), film critic and historian David Thomson says, "I don't want to make too much of...the whole body of work we call noir, but there is this moment after the war when the thinking in pictures begins to turn adult, disillusioned, tough, and wry." There was certainly a huge interest in dark, edgy, pessimistic films during and after the Second World War, and by 1949 when "White Heat" came out, film noir was in full bloom. Cagney and "White Heat" go after it with a vengeance. Every face appears cast in half shadow, and the dark follows everyone like a second skin.
This was Cagney's return to the gangster genre and to Warner Bros. Pictures after a prolonged contract dispute, and both he and the studio wanted to make something similar to the old Cagney product yet different. They got what they wanted. He was a gangster again, but gone were the days of Cagney being the charming, charismatic hoodlum antihero, the crook we loved. In "White Heat" his Cody Jarrett is anything but charming; and he's more than a ruthless, unfeeling killer; he's a homicidal maniac and totally nutso.
He heads up a gang of fellow thieves and murderers, referred to in the papers as the Jarrett gang, and within the first five minutes of the movie they have robbed a train and a bank, killing half a dozen innocent people in the process. Jarrett is such a vicious weirdo, even his own gang think he's too cold-blooded, and one of them refers to him as a "crackpot." When a hostage in the back of Jarrett's car complains that he can't breathe in there, Jarrett pumps the lid full of holes. Good-bye hostage. Another example of Jarrett's macabre sense of humor is when a fellow begs of him, "You wouldn't kill me in cold blood, would you?" and Jarrett answers, "No, I'll let you warm up a little."
Then, there's mom. Never would we see a stronger or more bizarre mother-son relationship than Cody and Ma Jarrett's until Hitchcock stretched the situation in "Psycho" a decade later. Ma (Margaret Wycherly) is the real brains of the outfit, and Cody is devoted to her. In his youth, Cody would feign headaches to get her attention and sympathy; in adulthood these episodes would develop into full-blown, epileptic-like seizures, real or imagined. Ma Jarrett is tough as nails, as malignant as her son, and the only controlling force in his life; she's his shelter in the storm, and her house is always his hideaway. "Top o' the world, son!"
But Ma Jarrett isn't the only deadly female in the story. We have the more traditional noir femme fatale as well in the form of Verna Jarrett (Virginia Mayo), Cody's beautiful wife. She's both trashy and treacherous, ready to turn on her husband at a moment's notice. The movie drops the hint that she's a former prostitute Cody picked up, and she can go back to where she came from for all he cares. Moreover, she has an eye for another member of the gang, Big Ed Somers (Steve Cockran).
Cody may be crazy but he ain't dumb. When it looks like he's going to be picked up on a murder rap in California, he confesses to a bank job he claims to have done at the same time in Illinois. He figures the Feds can't nail him for murder if he was in another state at the time, and the maximum he'll get for robbery is two years. So about half the film has Jarrett in prison, while an undercover T-man, Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien), tries to gain his confidence and make him spill the beans about the murder.
The good guys in the movie are almost inconsequential. Philip Evans (John Archer) is the government agent tracking Jarrett and his gang, a character so straight-arrow, square-jawed, deep-voiced, and humorless as to seem like a parody. And the aforementioned Fallon is equally nondescript. In this movie, it's only Jarrett that counts, his Ma, his slutty wife, and the double-dealing Big Ed, bad eggs all.
The director of "White Heat" was noted Hollywood filmmaker Raoul Walsh, whose career in Hollywood spanned over fifty years, from his first movie in 1912 to his last movie in 1964. During those years he directed "The Thief of Bagdad" (1924), "What Price Glory" (1926), "The Roaring Twenties" (1939), "They Died With Their Boots On" (1941), "High Sierra" (1941), "Objective Burma" (1945), "The Tall Men" (1955), "The Naked and the Dead" (1958), and "Captain Horatio Hornblower" (1951), among many others. Whew! "White Heat" was just one more notch in his six-gun.
"White Heat" is crisp, taut, and fast paced from beginning to end. It's true that Walsh makes parts of it seem almost documentary in style when the script delves into police procedural work, but mostly the film is all Cagney, coming apart at the seams. The finale at an oil refinery is as tense and exciting as anything Hollywood has produced. Like the rest of the movie.
Some of the second-unit location footage is a bit grainy and rough, but most of the film looks very clean. It was obviously a good print, showing little or no signs of age, and it's a good transfer. The black-and-white contrasts in the 1.33:1 ratio picture are also good, if not as vivid as in some older films, and the object delineation is fine. With so little wrong with it, you'd think you'd just stepped into a movie theater of fifty years ago.
There is little to be said of the audio. It's a typical monaural of the day, reproduced here via Dolby Digital 1.0, and possibly run through some sort of noise filter to eliminate background hiss. The result is not spectacular in terms of frequency extremes or dynamic range, but it is clear and quiet and generally easy on the ears. Max Steiner's somewhat overwrought musical score is heard to advantage, although it is sometimes a tad lean and bright. The Dolby mono was never meant to be audiophile material, but does a first-rate job with dialogue.
Again we get the same sorts of extras that come on all the discs in WB's "Gangsters Collection." First up is film critic Leonard Maltin hosting a "Warner Night at the Movies," 1949. This includes a vintage newsreel of the day; a ten-minute comedy short, "So You think You're Not Guilty," starring Joe McDoakes (actually from 1950 according to the copyright date on it); a seven-minute Merry Melodies cartoon, "Homeless Hare," with Bugs Bunny; and a theatrical trailer for the movie "The Fountainhead."
Following the "Warner Night" is a new documentary featurette, "White Heat: Top of the World," about sixteen minutes long and containing observations on the movie by film professors Dr. Drew Casper, USC, and Dr. Lincoln Hurst, UC Davis; director Martin Scorsese; filmmaker and film historian Alain Silver; authors Mark Vieira and Eric Lax; film critic Andrew Sarris; and actress Virginia Mayo (archival). Combine this documentary with the audio commentary by Dr. Casper, an expert in noir films and gangster movies, and you get a pretty well-rounded account of not only "White Heat" but crime films in general. While none of this bonus material is exactly riveting, it is informative. The extras conclude with thirty-three scene selections; a trailer for "White Heat"; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
"White Heat" is available separately or in a big, six-disc box set, the "Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection." The other five discs available, listed chronologically, are "Little Caesar" (1930) with Edward G. Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; "The Public Enemy (1931) with James Cagney, Jean Harlow, and Joan Blondell; "The Petrified Forest" (1936) with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart; "Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938) with Cagney, Bogart, Pat O'Brien, and the "Dead End" Kids; and "The Roaring Twenties" (1939) with Cagney, Bogart, and Priscilla Lane.
"White Heat" is vigorous and uncompromising. Cagney is all kinetic energy and raw nerve. The supporting players are ominous shades lurking in the background. The atmosphere is pure noir from start to finish. And the climax is one of those endings that makes for Hollywood legend.
"Made it, Ma! Top o' the world!"