In 1949 James Cagney returned to the gangster thriller genre that throughout the 1930s he had made his own. But instead of just rehashing the same old same old, it was Cagney's own idea to create a new type of gangster for a revisionist spin on that played-out genre. Rather than another quasi-sympathetic good-bad guy disadvantaged by society (as in The Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces, and The Roaring Twenties), this time he aimed for the total round-the-bend psychopath. The result was Cody Jarrett, the incendiary, disturbed gang leader who drives Raoul Walsh's White Heat. Cagney's performance doesn't only define White Heat. It also gave a literally explosive consummation to the Warners gangster tradition and remains perhaps the pinnacle performance in Cagney's long and varied career. Riveted together by Walsh's headlong, bullet-smooth directing, White Heat still ranks as one of the top two or three gangster epics. Its archetypal influence on later films like Goodfellas and the Al Pacino Scarface is striking, even if we can never again experience how new and bold it was back in its day. We can imagine Bosley Crowther, that excitable old Victorian, mopping his brow with a pocket-squared handkerchief while writing his review in The New York Times, which warned that this "acme of the gangster-prison film" was so "cruelly vicious" that "its impact upon the emotions of the unstable or impressionable is incalculable."
White Heat is, of course, the movie that gave us "Top of the world, Ma!", as iconic a Hollywood misquote as "Play it again, Sam" and "We don't need no steenking badges." That cry caps the climactic gunfight showdown between Cody and an army of T-men atop a natural-gas refinery, and the famous fireball explosion that follows may be Cody himself finally spontaneously combusting, not just the timely immolation of all those volatile fluids beneath him. By that point in the story, Cody is pure uncorked id. Whether doing away with witnesses at his gang's train robbery in the opening scenes, or taking cool pride in the casual comeuppance he gives his ambitious lieutenant Big Ed (Steve Cochran) who has been helping himself to something on the side with Cody's sexy, vulgar wife and mob moll, Verna (Virginia Mayo) Cody is a force of nature, as efficient and cold-blooded as a forest fire. Not even the government men, who track Cody with sophisticated postwar technology, can stop him. Instead, it's the human element that brings about Cody's Greek tragedy downfall. He risks a trusting friendship with Vic Pardo, a worshipful crook he meets in prison. Pardo, though, is actually Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien), a "copper" who infiltrates gangs by posing as a criminal. When Cody catches on to "Pardo's" betrayal, he almost weeps, a staggering moment of pathos that inflates Cagney's character to three dimensions, guaranteeing that we'll remember him long after the movie has ended.
But it's Ma herself who really makes Cody Jarrett more than just another homicidal thug. Played with chilling mother-love by Margaret Wycherly, Cody's devoted mom is as amoral as any killer on the screen. When middle-aged Cody sits on Ma's lap for love and comfort before one of his crippling headaches, we witness a dynamic that's just steps away from Hitchcock's Psycho eleven years later. In a prison chow hall, Cody snaps when he hears that Ma has died, and Cagney draws out Cody's berserk grief into an animal wail that doesn't stop as he barrels crazed through prison guards who drop before him like straw men. When the big moment comes, Cody's exclamation to the heavens before his apocalyptic finale is as inevitable as Oedipus's own fate, but with a kablooey that 1949 audiences may have felt was not just dramatic, but outright atomic. The gangster genre would never be the same old same old again.
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Part of the six-disc Warner Gangsters Collection, White Heat arrives on DVD struck from a print that's a real beauty. The image is nearly flawless, cleaner and truer by miles than any previous edition perhaps since its original theatrical run. The black-and-white noir tones are vivid and sharp as a shiv. (Only one "flaw" jars, a quick close-up during the train robbery that appears to come from a dupey source.) The DD 1.0 monaural audio is every bit as good, so the dialogue and Max Steiner's exhilarating score sound great.
The extras start with a full-length commentary by USC film prof Dr. Drew Casper, whose expert analysis plumbs the film's production history and genre context, Walsh's techniques, the Warner Brothers house style, and Cagney's career. It's a worthwhile lecture, though only occasionally a scene-specific one.
Leonard Maltin hosts Warner Night at the Movies 1949, building up to White Heat with a period trailer (The Fountainhead with Gregory Peck and new girl Patricia Neal), snippets from the "Newsreel Digest of 1949" (Harry Truman's inauguration, the dedication of the U.N. building), the well-preserved Joe McDoakes comedy short "So You Think You're Not Guilty" (10 mins.), and Chuck Jones's Bugs Bunny cartoon "Homeless Hare." Dr. Casper returns, this time in full view, to host the 2005 featurette White Heat: Top of the World (17 mins.). He's joined by Martin Scorsese, Alain Silver, Robert Sklar, Andrew Sarris, Eric Lax and others to praise the film, discuss its background, and speculate on what unnamed brain illness afflicted Cody. Virginia Mayo appears in recent archival footage.
Finally we get White Heat's theatrical trailer, which emphasizes the thrills of Cody's brutality but doesn't even hint at his Freudian mother fixation. Best to get folks past the ticket seller before weirding them out. Keep-case.