Combustible Celluloid
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With: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmund O'Brien, Fred Clark, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran, Paul Guilfoyle
Written by: Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, from a story by Virginia Kellogg
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 113
Date: 02/09/1949

White Heat (1949)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Top of the World

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

White Heat, starring James Cagney, came at the very end of Warner Brothers' gangster cycle, and left all previous films in its dust. Cagney gives an utterly ferocious performance, arguably his finest, as Cody Jarrett, a psychotic gangster with an unholy mother fixation. On the run with his gang after a botched train holdup, Cody's gang threatens to rip itself apart. His gorgeous wife (Virginia Mayo) is just about ready to walk out on him, while an undercover cop (Edmund O'Brien) insinuates himself into Cody's good graces. Every so often, Cody is attacked by one of his searing headaches, and only the touch of his mother (Margaret Wycherly) can relieve him. The film continues at this fever pitch, climaxing during a prison scene that should have won Cagney another Oscar, and culminating with the all-time famous "top o' the world" sequence.

It's not clear how veteran action director Raoul Walsh (The Thief of Bagdad, High Sierra) got away with all this intense stuff during the Hays Code era, but he did. Walsh began his career as an actor, but when an accident cost him an eye, he became a director, working steadily from the great classic Regeneration in 1915 through the early 1960s. He was always one of Hollywood's most reliable, gutsy and unpretentious filmmakers, but White Heat is arguably his masterpiece.

Released as part of a series of gangster films on DVD, Warner Home Video has given White Heat the same deluxe treatment that they gave Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 2003. Though only a single disc, the film features an option to play the film with a cartoon (Chuck Jones's 1949 Homeless Hare), newsreel, trailer and comedy short, replicating the 1949 moviegoing experience. Other extras include a new featurette and a commentary track by film historian Drew Casper.

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