White Heat

White Heat (1949)

Genres - Drama, Thriller  |   Sub-Genres - Gangster Film, Crime Thriller  |   Release Date - Sep 2, 1949 (USA)  |   Run Time - 114 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Mark Deming

James Cagney made his name on screen as a criminal, and he gave his last truly great outlaw performance in White Heat, which may well be the most intelligent and striking work of his career. While Cagney always knew how to lend his characters a charismatic menace, his Cody Jarrett in White Heat is both menacing and uncomfortably bizarre. Given to strange semi-epileptic seizures, sudden bursts of horrible violence, and a bizarre attachment to his mother that stops just short of incest, Cody represents the criminal as head case, at once fascinating and disturbingly unstable. Cagney manages to lend Cody just enough of his traditional tough-talking, wise guy veneer that he seems like a conventional screen criminal at first, but it doesn't take long for Cody to reveal himself as a full-blown psychotic, and the perversely self-immolating "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" finale is only the most spectacular symptom of his madness. Raoul Walsh's direction is hardly as audacious as Cagney's performance, but it is crisp, efficient, and briskly paced, and in a way Cagney's portrayal may well be all the more effective in this context. While White Heat's narrative often seems like the traditional story of a charismatic bad guy who will be forced to pay for his crimes in the last reel, it instead houses a different and most puzzling sort of villain, who paved the way for the stranger, more brutal outlaws who would dominate crime cinema in the 1960s and 1970s.