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Review: White Heat (1949)

Director: | 114 minutes | , | Actors: , , Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran, , , Fred Clark, , , , , Mickey Knox, , , Ian MacDonald, Ray Montgomery,

In the 1930s and 1940s, Warner Brothers was the film company that made the most and best gangster films. Their greatest asset was, next to Edward G. Robinson, actor James Cagney, who knew the art of turning hard-hitting and basically one-dimensional crime figures into flesh and blood characters. His career was launched with the 1931 film “The Public Enemy” in which he played the charming and ruthless Tom Powers. This was followed by films such as “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938) and “The Roaring Twenties” (1939), in which Cagney played men who got involved in crime against will and thanks. Cagney is truly unforgettable in “White Heat” (1949), the film that marked his comeback in the genre. Around 1940, the actor had had enough of playing just one gangster each time and threw himself – very successfully – into comedies and dramas. In 1949, Warner Brothers asked him back for “White Heat,” because in their eyes Cagney was the only actor who could portray the psychopathic Cody Jarrett.

Cody Jarrett (Cagney) is the undisputed leader of a gang of gangsters whose main focus is bank and train robbery. He does not shy away from shooting people in cold blood. The only person he is in awe of is his mother (Margaret Wycherly), an equally tough lady who does not stand in the way of her dear son. In fact, she is often the one who sets up the plans. Cody loves Ma more than his beautiful but adulterous wife Verna (Virginia Mayo), whom he treats like dirt. When authorities are on his heels, Cody decides to turn himself in and confess to a smaller robbery so that he doesn’t have to spend as long in jail. Because the police on him, they send undercover cop Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) to the same prison to keep an eye on things. When Cody finds out in jail that his mother has been murdered – by his “friend” Big Ed (Steve Cochran), who also wants to run off with his wife – all stops at him go through. He gathers a group of fellow prisoners, including the undercover agent, and flees. He wants revenge!

Director Raoul Walsh (“The Roaring Twenties”, “High Sierra”) wanted to play James Cagney at all costs and thus gave him complete freedom. Not wanting to play the same gangster again that he had portrayed many times between 1930 and 1940, he turned to screenwriters Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts to help them create the character Cody Jarrett. Walsh thought it was all fine. And so Cody became one of the most deranged and terrifying gangsters in movie history. A role that suited Cagney like no other. “White Heat” is bursting with unforgettable scenes, including the legendary clip in prison in which Cody learns by word of mouth that his mother is dead and he bursts into an absurd fit of rage. How disturbed the gangster is is also evident from the memorable final scene, which every enthusiast should watch for themselves. The script is full of sharp, humorous dialogues and the violence was – especially for that time – very prominent. A theme not to be underestimated in “White Heat” is the morbid relationship between Cody and his mother, who, incidentally, is played with a convincing chill by Margaret Wycherly (“The Yearling”). Her opinion is the only one that matters to Cody. From this film comes the famous quote “Made it Ma, top of the world!”

The danger of a protagonist who is as impressive as James Cagney is that the other members of the cast disappear a bit. This does not apply to the aforementioned Margaret Wycherly, but for example to Virginia Mayo (‘The Best Years of Our Lives’), who can now show nothing more than a naive dumb blonde while this talented actress had much more to offer. . Edmond O’Brien (“The Barefoot Contessa”), whose resemblance to Humphrey Bogart is striking, is as intriguing as the infiltrating agent Fallon. Another notable supporting role comes from Steve Cochran as Cody’s unreliable sidekick, Big Ed. Raoul Walsh’s direction is tight and the film runs smoothly. You will not be bored for a moment with this gangster film, shot in stylish black and white. character study. This is an absolute winner in film history. James Cagney is masterful as an unscrupulous villain with an Oedipus complex, the script is well put together and the whole ends with an impressive finale that will stay with you for a long time! An absolute must!

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