James Cagney - Arthur "Cody" Jarrett
Virginia Mayo - Verna Jarrett
Edmond O'Brien - Vic Pardo/Hank Fallon
Margaret Wycherly - Ma Jarrett
Steve Cochran - Big Ed Somers
Raoul Walsh - Director
Louis F. Edelman - Producer
Ben Roberts - Screenwriter
Sidney Hickox - Cinematographer
Max Steiner - Film Score
Marking James Cagney's return to Warners after a five-year absence, White Heat takes the energy which the actor had brought to earlier gangster (and musical) roles for the studio and filters it through the psychotic character of Cody Jarrett, a gang leader with headaches only his Ma (Margaret Wycherly) can cure. The result is a classic gangster film.
Ma dies while Jarrett is in prison and he escapes and kills Big Ed Somers (Steve Cochran), who was responsible for Ma's death and was involved with Jarrett's wife Vera (Virginia Mayo). Fallon (Edmond O'Brien), an undercover cop, infiltrates the gang and thwarts a violent payroll robbery leaving Jarrett to die atop an exploding gas tank, proclaiming to Ma that he is on top of the world.
Cagney works through his raging Oedipus complex with great relish and Raoul Walsh puts the performance at the film's center, most obviously in the prison scene where Jarrewtt breaks down and runs amok after learning of Ma's death. Significantly, the disturbed nature of the protagonist is located in performance rather than in any noirish shadowplay.
The noir actor is an icon. More often than not, he is embodying a type, and he creates his effects with means that are both vivid and sketchy as he provides something of a visual shorthand for a full-dress character. Because he is part of the decor, conforming to the all-important noir mood and ambience, he is kept on a short leash, his actorly enthusiasm constantly checked.
True bravura performances in noir are therefore rare. Cagney in White Heat and Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo perform with an all-out intensity that the genre normally discourages, and it's significant that both actors date from an earlier movie tradition, one that encouraged a dynamic style. The typical noir performer is tighter, emotionally stinger than Cagney.
Walsh's mise-en-scene compliments the actor through angled shots and camera moves. In this way, it is apparent that the psychology of White Heat is primitive rather than noirish in its inflection. The film's violence, including one character being disfigured through scalding, is also suitably intense.
The film mythologizes Cagney's gangster persona as Walsh's High Sierra (1941) had done with Humphrey Bogart. Similarly the shift of both films from organized racketeering to robbery and the use of rural rather than urban locations are signs of genre development. White Heat's plot is revisited in the minor Law vs. Gangster (1958).
--PHIL HARDY, from The Gangster
Film Encyclopedia, 2001.
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