White Heat (1949)
Reviewed on 2007 February 24
This is a riveting movie, despite its age. This is largely fueled by James Cagney’s amazing (and scary) performance as a psychopathic gangster.
Cody Jarrett (Cagney) is a cold-blooded gangster driven only by two things: revenge for people that cross him, and devotion to his Ma (Margaret Wycherly). Ma didn’t give her son a conscience, but she passed on her guts and brains, I’ll give her that. She’s a shrewd old bat that dotes on her baby, exhorting him with cheers of “top of the world!” and keeping his gang in line. Ma will do anything for Cody, including tolerating his gold-digging spouse Verna (Virginia Mayo).
After a successful train heist, Cody and his gang need to go into hiding. Cody uses the Jarrett brains to think of a way to outsmart the police when they get too close to pinning the heist on him. The police resolve not to be underestimated. They’re going to use their own tricks to nail Jarrett and company.
The plot sounds simple but it’s got some interesting maneuvers, and the dialogue still sounds good, even today. There’s no “wooden acting disease” in this movie either. The police may seem a little stiff and even that comes across as being extremely focused on getting Jarrett. And how tough was Wycherly here? God, imagine Ma Jarrett as a mother-in-law! There are some great zingers where she draws enough blood from Verna that you almost felt sorry for her… almost.
Three chocolate morsels.