Gangster Movie Month: "White Heat" Review

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A psychopathic criminal makes a daring break from prison and leads his old gang in a chemical plant payroll heist. This 1949 film stars Cody Jarrett and Verna Jarrett.
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Gangster Movie Month: "White Heat" Review

-- Rating: Approved
Length: 114 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 3, 1949
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Genre: Crime/Drama/Film-Noir

Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) is a hardened, angry criminal who is accused of a crime that could put him away for the most part of his adult life. He has no interest in growing old in prison, but he knows he has to fess up to something, because the cops aren't going to just let him off the hook. He wisely confesses to a lesser crime to get a two-year sentence and spends those two years plotting what he will do when he is released.

The police are convinced that Jarrett has done much more than what he confided, so they place officer Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien) in his cell under the name Vic Pardo to try and get chummy with Jarrett and snag a confession. What Vic finds is more than what the cops bargained for, as Jarrett is prone to headaches that cause severe mood swings and sometimes violent outbursts. He is also secretly running his gang from inside the prison, which shows the loyalty of his henchmen, including his Ma (Margaret Wycherly) and wife Verna (Virginia Mayo). He allows Vic inside his inner circle but confesses nothing, which means the undercover cop has to join Jarrett's gang once he is out of prison in order to bring him down.

After being freed, Jarrett wastes no time in planning his next heist. He manages to pull off a few jobs before things go seriously wrong during the robbery of a train. The gang manages to escape, but a few have injuries, some of which very serious. They hole up in a cabin in a remote part of a local mountain range to regroup and plot their next move. Jarrett, prone to sudden outbursts, doesn't seem to care about anyone in the gang except Ma, whom he has a somewhat twisted relationship with that is borderline indecent. When she dies, he feels like he has nothing to live for anymore and begins to slowly lose his mind. Vic sees an opportunity to bring Jarrett down once and for all, so he subtly helps Jarrett's madness along, which could have dire consequences for the entire group.

Cagney was practically an institution at Warner Bros. in the 1930s, churning out tough-guy movies that made the studio quite a tidy sum of money. His star continued to shine until he decided to leave Warner Bros. for life as an independent producer. Unfortunately for Cagney, his indie career didn't pan out, but the studio was happy to welcome him back after his absence because they believed that he still had enough fans to be a box office draw. The studio was correct, as "White Heat" was a big hit that not only made plenty of money but also set the stage for the modern-day gangster picture.

At the time when "White Heat" came out, Cagney was already known for crime films, having built his career by playing gangster roles. Those films were mostly for entertainment purposes and didn't build upon character or plot as much as today's gangster pictures do. "White Heat" was a huge departure from the norm, allowing director Raoul Walsh to really delve into the psyche of the lead character and see what was going on in his head. Audiences were both aghast and completely fascinated by Cagney's portrayal, which some would argue was the best of his career. He played Jarrett as a man with no remorse for his dastardly deeds, which was very rare for that day and age. The only time when Jarrett seemed to have a human emotion that wasn't anger or rage came occurred when he found out about his mother's death. Even though he had been a ruthless and heartless criminal before that, Cagney realistically showed Jarrett's sorrow at losing his beloved mom.

"White Heat" not only marked the return of Cagney to the Warner Bros. fold but also reunited him with director Walsh, who was at the helm of the films that made Cagney famous. The two didn't miss a beat despite the fact that they hadn't worked together in several years. Together, they laid the foundation for future gangster films like "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas," which combined the expected violence and crime with character studies. Most modern movies have a debt to pay to films of the past, and any gangster movie made after 1950 has a debt to "White Heat." Without Walsh's brave take on the genre and Cagney's magnificent take on a vile psychopath, those movies may not have ever been made, which would inarguably have been a huge loss to the movie world.

Rating 4 out of 5