Dir: Raoul Walsh | Cast: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brian, Margaret Wycherly | US Crime Drama 116′
Jimmy Cagney was in his fiftieth year when he made this return to the gangster genre, and looks it. But age has neither mellowed him nor slowed him down in this consummate star vehicle with all the trimmings (including a haunting score by Max Steiner – who gets a separate title card all to himself).
White Heat is inconceivable without Cagney, but he’s surrounded by a top supporting cast, most of whom aren’t even named in the credits (I particularly liked G.Pat Collins as the old lag with the hearing aid), with Margaret Wycherley unforgettable as the meanest mama since Ma Barker.
White Heat begins by showing it means business with an incredibly violent train hold-up; after which Cagney continues to display a wanton lack of respect for human life right up to the end. But being Cagney you can’t help rooting for him, and he and Edmond O’Brien (usually unfairly overlooked in discussions of this movie) are both such charismatic presences that it’s almost heartbreaking to see them bond while knowing all along that O’Brien is simply a police plant. Although we’re told well before the end that Cagney is by now hopelessly insane with only brief periods of lucidity, he still seems perfectly functional until the very, very end. (His retelling of the story of the Trojan Horse is particularly cherishable.)
For a late 1940s thriller much of the film actually takes place in the Southern California sun; and the use of locations throughout is exemplary, culminating in the oil refinery on 198th Street and Figueroa, near Torrance, which provides Cagney with a suitably imposing backdrop for his big scene at the end. @Richard Chatten.
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