White Heat

Top of the world.

Released in 1949, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 16 Apr 2006 by Scott Morris
White Heat image

Right then. An eight and a half hour flight to China probably isn't many folks' idea of fun, especially when stuck in cattle class. Imagine the nexus of pure joy that formed in my heart on finding out that the 1980's era monitor that should have been distracting me with sweet, sweet entertainment was instead mocking me with the dark void of nothingness. Heeding Nietzsche's warning about staring into that sort of thing I put it from my mind. Besides, a quick flick through the audio channels reveals that at least one of the films was Cheaper by the Dozen 2, so in many ways it was something of a result.

Besides, you don't get to be this much of a gangsta hustlin, straight pimping collosus of the modern age without having foreseen and prepared for such eventualities. KLM will not break me. No-one will break me!

Ahem. What I'm trying to say, apparently by completely ignoring the point, is to say that I watched James Cagney classic White Heat instead, which was the sort of intensely wise idea you have no doubt come to expect from me. We get to call it a classic because, quite aside from its 1949 release date making it over twice as old as I am, it's really damn good.

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You may already have some inkling as to what this 'gangsta' flick, from back in the days when it was still spelt properly, entails, but if not here goes. Arthur 'Cody' Jarrett (Cagney) is a marked man after a particularly daring train heist sees his gang promoted rather rapidly to the top of the Fed's Most Wanted List. However, you don't get to the top of the criminal food chain without a backup plan, in this case confessing to a lesser heist in a state far enough away to give him an airtight alibi for his actual misdemeanour. Cunning, no?

This, as you may imagine, amuses the coppers no end. A counter-cunning plan is hatched, parachuting ace undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien) in to pose as common crook Vic Pardo in the hopes of worming into his gang and getting the skinny on where the loot has been stashed. The rest of Cody's gang hasn't been too keen on the idea of cooling their heels until Cody gets out, with 'Big' Ed Somers (Steve Cochran) angling to take over both the gang and Cody's wife Verna (Virginia Mayo). Thing of it is, Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wyncherly) has a petty good handle on what's going on and is becoming something of a liability in Ed's eyes. The thing of that is that like every good gangster Cody loves his Ma to the point of idolatry, and might have to do something drastic, like busting out of prison, in response if Ed decides to do something drastic, like murdering Ma.

Yeah, the noise you're hearing is the result of a fan / faecal matter interface scenario. While White Heat doesn't shirk from the intriguing interplay, delicious duplicity and awesome alliteration that comes from such a cop vs robber vs robber vs robber's wife standoff, the overarching reason why this film works so damn well has little to do with the quality of the script (which is good) or the supporting actors (who are great) and very much to do with Cagney, who is every bit as awesome as I claim my alliteration to be.

White Heat image

The biggest crime on display in White Heat isn't any of the Jarrett gang's nefarious deeds, it's the way Cagney steals every scene he's in while managing (just) to avoid completely overpowering everything else. When you start talking about screen presence, as one indubitably does whilst reclining on a sumptuous leather armchair mulling over a fine brandy and pipe of the finest tabbacan, there's few who can match Cagney's odious anti-hero intensity. If there's an actor who can pull off this role more believably and completely I haven't heard about him. It's an utterly compelling turn and rightly deserving of the plaudits heaped on it.

Director Raoul Walsh had been at this game since 1912 so it's perhaps not much of a surprise to see that everything's bang on form. Tense, taut and tightly paced, this harks back to an era when they really knew how to get you on the edge of your seat. With a screenplay and performance that means you can never be entirely sure what Cody's thinking or about to attempt next, this manages the difficult feat of making you feel at home with the characters and action without knowing precisely how they're going to wind up.

The film hails from a time when studios had their own orchestras and weren't afraid to use them, and in this case they rarely seem to wind down for more than twenty seconds before the string section starts up again. If there's one aspect that dates the film to modern viewers (apart from the black and white photography, naturally) it's this sonic onslaught which sometimes overpowers the emotions of a scene rather than accentuate them. Still, the past is a foreign country and that's just how things were done there.

White Heat also typifies an art that's been, well, not lost, exactly, by Hollywood of late but perhaps obscured; storytelling. Behold - a comparatively straightforward, understandable story that still manages to throw a couple of twists in the plot development whilst not coming from an unbelievably leftfield position or retroactively forcing a retelling of the entire story (yes, Basic, I am looking at you) or allowing a narrative technique to completely obfusticate and overpower the narrative (Hullo, 21 Grams! What's that? How much does a soul weigh? Take a seat, you pretentious little bounder!). White Heat simply works as a great slab of entertainment that qualifies for the adjective of 'rip-roaring' as well as a grandstanding showreel for Cagney. If there's really anything else you feel you need from cinema to enjoy yourself prepare for a lifetime of disappointment, but for the huge bulk of the planet this is as good a film as you're likely to meet. Like the man says, top of the world.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 5/5 TippyMarks.

Raoul Walsh
Cast list:
James Cagney (Arthur 'Cody' Jarrett)
Virginia Mayo (Verna Jarrett)
Edmond O'Brien (Vic Pardo / Hank Fallon)
Margaret Wyncherly (Ma Jarrett)
Steve Cochran (Big Ed Somers)