Saturday, January 23, 2010

White Heat (1949)

White Heat is the story of Cody Jarrett (James Cagney), a ruthless gangster trying to evade the law after a train robbery. He figures it's only a matter of time before the cops catch up with him, so he arranges to be convicted of a lesser crime. He'll stay in jail for a couple years and be released when the heat is off. They cops don't buy it but don't have enough evidence to convict on the train job. They send a cop into the prison to pose as a cell mate and gain his trust.

Unlike most cop dramas I've watched, the police here aren't stupid. In fact, they are very resourceful. Their techniques for tailing cars and keeping track of the baddies was fascinating, this being before GPS and cell phones.

Cagney is the star and totally shines. Virginia Mayo (Cagney with a side of Mayo? Naw...) is his loyal trophy wife, stage actress Margaret Wycherly is his fixated-upon mother (think Ma Barker). While Cody's sanity is questioned, his brutality is not. he is unflinching when offing police, robbery victims who might be able to identify him, and gang members who become liabilities. I've never watched a Cagney film (not counting that crap he did in drag with some dude named Lacey), and I recognized every mannerism copied by comedians and cartoons. What they could not copy is his ability to fill the screen and capture the eye. A master at work.

Cody's last line, "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!", has been referenced in songs, movies, TV shows, and cartoons. Kevin Garnett shouted it during his post game interview after winning the NBA championship. This is a fascinating, complex story, well written, acted, and produced. It will appeal to people who think it won't. AMRU 4.
"You know something, Verna, if I turn my back long enough for Big Ed to put a hole in it, there'd be a hole in it."

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