White Heat (1949) Review

Director: Raoul Walsh

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 114 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

When I think of the greatest acting performances I’ve seen in my life, James Cagney’s role as Cody Jarrett in White Heat is one of the first to spring to mind. In this truly great gangster classic, Jarrett confronts threats against his life from both inside and outside his crew of criminals. You see, he just robbed a train and the federal government wants him dead or behind bars, so they send an agent by the name of Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) to infiltrate Jarrett’s ranks. James Cagney’s made some good movies, but this is the best of the lot (well, at least of the ones I’ve seen).

Of course, it is Cagney’s beyond-superb performance as a psychotically-violent mobster who’s losing his grip on reality that stands out most when thinking about White Heat. It’s a shame that it wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. You just can’t take your eyes off of it. However, this picture’s secret weapon is its taut script. The storytelling here is remarkably tight…remove one scene from the finished product and the whole thing would make no sense. It should probably be shown in filmmaking schools for this reason.

Between the tough-talking dialogue and the moments of action (which come rather frequently for a non-action film), you’ve got tons of iconic moments. Rewatching White Heat will have any viewer saying “oh, I love this scene” many times over. The various supporting characters are reasonably easy to keep track of and the Max Steiner musical score shines on a few occasions.

White Heat is frequently considered a film-noir, but I think of it more as a straight gangster flick, similar to those Cagney was making in the 1930s. Anyway, this thriller is a must-watch for fans of organized crime media. It has it all: an astounding central performance, a screenplay that never goes off on tangents, cold-blooded killings, an explosive finale, and more. Its appeal is not limited to Cagney aficionados.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

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