Director Raoul Walsh propels the story from a rolling start, a tautly paced train robbery that goes awry, culminating in the leader's capture. An ambitious henchman (Steve Cochran) plots a behind-bars hit foiled by O'Brien, who's infiltrated the prison to befriend Jarrett, a goal handily accomplished with the rescue. Jarrett's paranoia, murderous anger, and longing for his mother are interwoven with intermittent, incapacitating headaches that underline and amplify his core of inner rage; Cagney makes these seizures harrowing, revealing purely animal pain and terror at once frightening and pathetic.
Jarrett's escape, the gang's reunion with fellow escapee O'Brien aboard, trusted by Jarrett but not his partners, and the big score that unravels in a climactic gun battle in an oil refinery are conducted with a gritty economy, and Walsh and his cast evoke a criminal life devoid of glamour, noteworthy for the undercurrents of distrust that keep tempers flaring. The final showdown, and Jarrett's crazed, taunting battle cry in the face of death ("Top of the world, Ma!"), achieve a sense of tragic inevitability that deservedly make this a defining moment in Cagney's screen career. --Sam Sutherland
At the time it was released many critics warned audiences about the movie's level of violence. By today's standards the violence isn't much: you won't find oozing gore. But WHITE HEAT bests most modern films in terms of brutality. You might not see the blood pouring, but the harsh tone of the film and its vicious characters create a sense of violence that generally outstrips more graphic modern films. The pace of the film is driving, the story and dialogue convincing, and the cast top-notch all the way.
James Cagney spent much of the 1940s trying to distance himself from the gangster roles he created in the 1930s, but he returns to the genre in what may be his single finest performance as Cody Jarrett, career criminal, gang leader, and easily one of the most psychotic criminals Hollywood has ever portrayed. Backed by his equally dangerous mother and perfidious wife (Margaret Wycherly and Virginia Mayo, both of whom give the performances of their careers), Jarrett undertakes a train holdup--and when things get too hot tries to sidetrack the cops by taking a rap on a minor charge. But the cops are onto his tricks, and they place an operative in his cell, hoping to get the evidence they need to send him to the gas chamber.
Although the plot is convoluted, director Raoul Walsh endows the film with considerable clarity, directness, and speed, and from the opening scenes of train robbery to the justly celebrated climax at the refinery, WHITE HEAT contains one memorable moment after another. Hard-driving, fascinating, and powerful, this is a must-have for any one who enjoys Film Noir.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer