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White Heat

James Cagney , Virginia Mayo , Raoul Walsh    NR (Not Rated)   DVD
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
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This superb 1949 crime drama takes elements of plot, character, and theme familiar from '30s melodramas and orchestrates them as an existential tragedy noir. James Cagney, in a towering performance, is Cody Jarrett, a transparently psychotic robber with a molten temper, feral cunning, and mercurial charm that are finely calibrated extensions of the doomed gangsters he played a decade before, this time coiled not around a Depression-era impetus of greed or class rivalry, but an Oedipal bond. Cody's beloved, calculating "Ma" (Margaret Wycherly) is the compass for his every move, her iron will and long shadow acknowledged not only by Cody but by his gang, his bored, restless wife (Virginia Mayo, radiating sensuality and guile), and the undercover cop (Edmond O'Brien) planted in Jarrett's path.

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

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cagney & Crew Pack A Brutal Punch May 27 2004
Format:VHS Tape
There are two styles of Film Noir. The Noir of the 1940s is characterized by glossy production values, gumshoes and dangerous women, and complex plots that emphasize moral ambiguity. The Noir of the 1950s is characterized by a gritty realism and brutality and tends to place the criminal at center of the story. The 1949 film WHITE HEAT straddles the two styles--a fact that makes it "required viewing" for any one interested in the way Film Noir developed and changed over time. But WHITE HEAT is much more than a film with historical significance. It continues to pack quite a punch right up present day.
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing gangster portrayal Sept. 17 2000
Format:VHS Tape
James Cagney, in older years, retakes his archetypal gangster role, though this time, he invests it with greater psychological connotations as the unbalanced, mother-fixated hoodlum, Cody Jarrett. As opposed to the usual Depression-era ambient, Cagney, in the crowning performances of his career, plays the ageing gangleader Jarrett, who is caught in a spiral of tension as a relentless undercover agent (Edmond O'Brien) infiltrates his gang with a view to putting him inside, while his faithless wife and his rival (outstandingly played by Virginia Mayo and Steve Cochran respectively) plot his as well as his mother's deaths. Margaret Wycherley is fine in the supporting role of Jarrett's mother, the object of his obsessive Oedipal devotion. What is most endearing about this film is that, for a movie that was made in 1949, it works with still the same narrative machinery of contemporary thrillers exploring the same themes. This proves that it hasn't dated at all, producing often mesmerisingly suspenseful results. It can be compared, with favour, to the best and latest offerings of the gangster-thriller genre. One scene in the middle (a hand-to-hand combat between T-Man Edmond O'Brien and a hoodlum) has the privilige of being one of the earliest martial arts displays in the history of Hollywood -- an ancestor of the fight scenes of Seagal, Van Damme, Snipes, et al.
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5.0 out of 5 stars It's Still Amazing Aug. 2 2002
Format:VHS Tape
This movie remains a thrill to watch. Even though it was made in 1949, long after the Warner Bros gangster cycle is considered to have ended, it is probably the most flambouyant such film the studio turned out. A measure of how good Cagney really was in this movie is to try to imagine any other actor being as credible and effective in this role. I can't think of one who could come close, then or now. The movie and his performance are over the top, and at times it seems as though the rest of the cast is just trying to get out of his way. Yet, it all works fabulously. One great scene that doesn't get much mention is where Cagney confronts his wife and "Big Ed" in their hideout. It still gives me chills. This isn't high art, but a great cast and director created an incredible piece of entertainment. Don't miss it.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Killer Gangster Picture, Cagney at His Best! July 9 2000
Format:VHS Tape
I looks like just another gangster picture, but it's not, it's much more. James Cagney returned to gangster roles because the role of Cody Jarrett was just to good to turn down. He creates one of the most ruthless characters ever to grace the silver screen. His Cody Jarrett is a brilliant personification of criminal paranoia mixed with motherly obsession. Just by seeing him on the screen, his intensity feels like the screen will explode. Probably Cagney's best role, certainly his most meaty, Cody's breakdown headache sequences are harrowing but brilliant. The story takes a back-seat, this is basically Cagney's show, but Virginia Mayo deserves credit for her role, she oozes sex appeal. The 'Top of the World' finale is now classic. Great for Cagney fans and gangster buffs. From a scale of 1-10 I give this film an 8!
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars James Cagney in "White Heat" is Great!!!! Sept. 24 2009
I purchased this DVD after seeing it on TCM. I am a newcomer to the older film genre, but as a fan of the good guys vs. bad guys types of entertainment, I decided to watch "White Heat" after reading the info on it. I liked the way Cagney portrayed Cody Jarrett, who is a robber/killer. You can really believe Cagney is that crazy!!!!! Virginia Mayo is looks good, but she is in the way of Cody and his Mom's plans. As well as obviously eying one of Cody's gang. Cody plans and schemes his way, once the T-men get on his tail. Cody lands in jail and meets several new "friends". But Cody only really trusts Ma, and his new friend from prison (thanks to the T-men). But Cody has plans to get back into the "action" and settle scores!!!! However the ending is somewhat anti-climatic, but Cagney's character remains true to the end-CRAZY.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Isn't the release of a dvd version long overdue?
Well, the opinions are uniformal.This is one one of the most enjoyable gangster flicks of all times.Cagneys performance is more than just memorable. Read more
Published on Jan. 18 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Old-Fashioned Armed Robbery
In WHITE HEAT James Cagney is a psychotic killer named Cody Jarrett who has a mother fixation. Cody heads a gang of armed robbers and he travels with an entourage which includes Ma... Read more
Published on Aug. 8 2003 by Peter Kenney
5.0 out of 5 stars Top of the Gangster Movie world
One has to wonder what the AFI was thinking when they made up their "100 Movies" lists. It's bad enough that they ignored "White Heat" on their greatest movies, but it's a crime... Read more
Published on Jan. 19 2002 by "weirdo_87"
5.0 out of 5 stars You dirty rat, you!
This is a great 40s gangster movie! I watched all of it in one sitting! However, this site forgot some great quotes... Read more
Published on Oct. 24 2001 by Deirdre
5.0 out of 5 stars "Big Ed, with his big ideas."
"One day he's gonna get a big one...about me, and it'll be his last", as Cagney falls to the floor in another series of headaches. This is a truly wonderful movie. Read more
Published on Aug. 30 2000 by Jeremy Caskey
3.0 out of 5 stars Classic gangster film, that's all!
"White Heat" is just another one of those gangster films of the thirties and forties.Some of them are really impressive with the wisdom that they put on society, but this... Read more
Published on June 26 2000 by Michel Pilon
5.0 out of 5 stars too much criminal work for so few enjoying
Truly I don't understand this gangster. The movie is very good and the action, explosive, but one suposse that bank robbery, crime, shootings, figths and killings are justified... Read more
Published on May 26 2000 by Carlos Vazquez Quintana
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