This movie I watched in an airport on my way home from a seminar. The reason I mention this is that I got myself a badass food poisoning or something like that that made the flight home absolutely horrifying. I have not entirely recovered, but last night on that flight it was really bad. I suppose those are not conditions during which you should watch a movie for review. Everything you see will somehow respond to the stomach. Yet I did so and it turned out to be the best part of that grueling trip. Sick or not, “White Heat” is a good movie.
The two main assets of “White Heat” are:
- James Cagney
- Action, action, action
I have previously reviewed a number of Cagney’s film and while I am a big fan of Mr. Cagney himself I do not always like his movies. “Angels with Dirty Faces” was such a film in particular. In “White Heat” Cagney is again again a gangster, but developed to a much higher degree. Cagney owns this role and gives it so many facets: Anger, despair, pain, glee, satisfaction and insanity, you name it, it is all there. Sometime I fell the camera lingers on his face just to capture all these expressions from a genius actor. In a sense it is almost too much since it steals the picture from his opponents in the film, but I will return to that later.
Cagney’s character is Cody Jarrett. He is the leader of a particularly nasty gang specializing in armed robbery with a special emphasis on armed. The movie starts out with a particularly brutal train robbery to set the stage. In the aftermath of this robbery the police (called T-men, I suppose this is the precursor to FBI) is on his tail and he decides to take the rap of a minor job half the country away in order to avoid death sentence for the train robbery.
The second most interesting character is “Ma” Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly), Cody’s mother. The Jarrett’s have a mental history with both father and brother dead from insanity. Cody is clearly affected too with migraines, lunacy tendencies and a more than usual close attachment to his mother. In fact their relationship reminds me of that of a mother and a 6 year old boy. As far as I can tell this is the only movie ever where Cagney is sitting on the lap of an older woman and not for comedic effect. Ma Jarrett is truly badass. Tough as nails she is no second to Cody and together they are lethal. In many ways Ma is the true leader of the gang. You may be surprised to know that this is the same actress who played the saintly mother in “Sergeant York”. I was stunned when I learned that from the extra material, that shows some acting skill!
On the other side of the law we find a number of police (FBI?) men, particularly the leader of the investigation into Cody Jarrett (John Archer as Philip Evans) and his undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien). The price of having Cagney dominating this picture is that there is very little room for anybody else and that goes particularly for the policemen. Evans is practically anonymous as the two-dimensional investigator. Fallon gets a larger share of the attention. He is an undercover specialist who lets himself get imprisoned to get close to criminals suspected of more than they got sentenced for. For this job he may be the best there is but it is no easy job. He has to get the confidence of a man who trusts nobody but his mum. He is good, but I do not envy him his job.
This second part of “White Heat” is a prison movie and quite good as that. We get the infighting amongst the convicts and the obligatory prison break. Fallon has to ingratiate himself with Cody while dodging the prisoners who might recognize him. While we learn very little about the Fallon character he does his job well and convincing. His plans however are trashed when Cody learns that Ma has died and his second, “Big Ed” (Steve Cochran) has taken control of the gang. From then on the movie is a wild ride and truly enjoyable.
That is the second quality of this film. It packs a lot of action for a 1949 movie. We get several wild car chases, violent robbery, shootouts and even some quite impressive pyrotechnics. The final explosion alone must have set a new standard in its day. The stuntmen had some busy days with this film and while special effects and action sequences generally do not impress me (jaded from countless modern movies whose only quality is to overload it with explosions) it works terrific here. The movie is fast paced and I regularly find myself on the edge of my seat. Man, when did I last do that with an old movie? Some parts seem cliché today, but that I think is because “White Heat” is regularly referenced. At least I can recall a number of direct copies from “White Heat”, but rarely as successful as the original.
Virginia Mayo is top billed as leading actress. She is Cody’s girlfriend Verna. Her role is however rather limited. She is there to show how Cody owns his surroundings and his girlfriend is no different. She is a plaything and a rather annoying one at that. That is intentional I think. She is trashy and disloyal and so a natural appendix to a gang.
I am not a fan of gangster movies, but “White Heat” is so well made that I make an exception. If you want to see just one classic gangster film that is where I point my finger.