White Heat (1949)

Directed by Raoul Walsh, written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (screenplay)

“If I turned my back long enough for Big Ed to put a hole in it, there’d be a hole in it.”

The film opens with a train heist where multiple victims fall, and as the law closes in, gang boss Cody Jarrett (Cagney) unveils his plan to plead guilty to another crime elsewhere that exonerates him from the current mess while his crew continues to operate under the direction of his mother. He’s serving a light sentence alongside a police informant when he hears his mother has been killed and breaks out of prison to seek revenge and continue his rampage.

This one’s also its own beast. Initially resembling a crime drama more than noir, we keep receiving glimpses into a sadistic side to our main character (Cagney). There’s a sense that he wouldn’t be as brutal as he is if the situation didn’t call for it, but as the situation does call for it, he enjoys the brutality.

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Also present is the usual femme fatale (Virginia Mayo), cheating, maneuvering and generally attempting to wreak havoc, but this time the wicked intelligence of Cagney’s gangster keeps her pinned down. She tries to muck up the works, but Jarrett’s just not having it. In noir, women seem to run all over men. In this noir, she tries but meets a steel wall.

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A few factors both qualify it for and disqualify it from the genre. First, there’s the femme fatale (qualifies), except she fails at stirring up trouble (disqualifies). She cheats on the boss with his right hand man (qualifies), but he’s barely interested in what she’s up to at all (disqualifies). Also, the darkness of Cagney’s character exhibits itself over and over through the film (qualifies), but the almost maniacal glee he seems to takes in some of his most brutal acts detaches the situation from the modern, cynical condition (disqualifies).

The film covers a lot of territory where the action is concerned, encompassing enough for a miniseries. It’s gangster, it’s noir, and it’s highly recommended.

4+ stars

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