Originally Reviewed – 1/11/2011
Way back when in the late 1940’s, James Cagney’s star had fallen a bit. Fresh from his second departure from Warner brothers, Cagney spent most of the decade trying to reshape his tough guy image by making movies his way. After starting an independent production company in 1943, Cagney Productions went on to produce a number of decent films including the well received 13 Rue Madeline. Despite the success of that movie, the company had seen some commercial failures as well, topping off with the historic flop, The Time of Your Life. Audiences rejected the notion that Cagney could be something more than a tough guy and the movie almost bankrupted the fledgling company. Then, in 1949, Cagney Productions, feeling financial and legal pressure from a number of fronts, begrudgingly merged with their old studio. Their first movie together? A little gangster flick masterpiece called White Heat.
Cagney plays gangster Cody Jarret, a train robbing, trigger happy mama’s boy who after going on the lamb for a train robbery, concocts a number of clever schemes to get away clean. While it’s ironic that right after his biggest flop Cagney went back to the role he knew best, it turned out to be the right move. One of the finest performances of his career, Cagney tows the line between trust, devotion to his mother and complete madness with absolute perfection. The real beauty of his performance is how Cagney plays the part completely unsympathetically, yet we all find ourselves secretly rooting for him to get away with the caper. The “mess hall” scene is particularly wonderful. While it’s easy to dismiss watching it with twenty-first century eyes, Cagney’s reactions and explosiveness holds up over sixty years later.
The rest of the cast is downright perfect, featuring John Archer as the treasury man after Cagney, Edmond O’Brien as an undercover cop and the lovely Virginia Mayo as Cagney’s love interest and accomplice. However, the scene stealer of the film has to be the fantastic Margaret Wycherly as Cagney’s doting mother. Every actress who has ever played either an over protective matriarch or an elderly head of a crime family owes a tribute to Wycherly’s performance. Cold, calculating and quietly manipulating, Wycherly shows that while Cagney is the boss of the gang, she’s the soul. The film is also wonderfully directed, well shot and cleverly written, making it a masterpiece of the film noir genre. One of the forgotten classics of American cinema, especially with modern filmgoers, White Heat stands the test of time as a landmark film. Cagney may not have been at his height when filming began but when all was said and done, this movie put him “on top of the world” once again.
Score – 100%