Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—White Heat (1949) ****

NR, 114 min.
Director: Raoul Walsh
Writers: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, Virginia Kellogg (story)
Starring: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran, John Archer, Wally Cassell, Fred Clark

Since TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar began again this year, my DVR seems to be collecting an amazing array of classic films. The first that I’ve taken time to sit down with is the classic crime flick “White Heat” starring James Cagney. This is one of the great criminal portraits in American cinematic history.

Raoul Walsh’s film tells the story of Cody Jarrett and the band of thieves he runs with his mother as his right hand man and only trusted advisor. The movie begins with an intricately designed plan to rob a train. In order to throw the Feds off him and his gang for the train robbery, Cody cops to another robbery that happened at the same time with a much lesser prison sentence. When he learns that another member of his team has taken over and has even stolen his girl, he decides he needs to break out and set things straight.

Cagney’s portrayal of Cody boarders on the psychotic, running his gang with a cold heart and a precision to his heists that often leaves the rest of the gang questioning his sanity. He may be insane, but not in the ways he’s suspected by his gang. He suffers debilitating migraines. His mother is his greatest protector and cohort. If anything happened to her, he might just lose it. Well, when something like that is possible in any plot, you can place a sure bet on what is going to happen.

Despite the predictable nature of Cody’s predicament, the movie remains fresh even to this day. It remains an essential film partly because of Cagney’s superb performance as a man teetering on the edge. Heath Ledger’s Joker owes a good deal to this character. It’s also a wonderfully plotted crime masterpiece that follows through with its developments in a way you don’t often see in older films or in action-oriented films. It plays out all of its possibilities before its finished, and it ends in one of the most iconic scenes in film history. “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”

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