Thursday, March 18, 2010

"White Heat" is a Masterful Gangster Film

As you stand at the local video store, staring at the pleathora of old and new films, do you ever pick up a film, read the back of the case, and then decide to rent it? How many times have you come away sorely disappointed? When I found this film, I was skeptical. I had never seen a James Cagney film. I'd heard of his masterful work in the crime dramas of the 1930s and 40s, and then his academy award winning role as George M. Cohan in 1942's "Yankee Doodle Dandy", ironically, a huge departure from his most famous persona. 1949's "White Heat" is an excellent story of a group of gangsters who are looking for the ultimate pay off.

In the film, Cagney plays Arthur "Cody" Jarrett, a sadistic psychopathic gang leader who suffers from blinding headaches and an Oedipus complex. In order to escape the death penalty for a killing spree on a train robbery, he confesses to another crime in another state which happened simultaneously. While in prison, he comes up with a plan to rob a chemical plant on pay day. He also escapes attempts on his life by someone who was once one of his closest allies, one of his fellow gangsters working with a man on the inside. When he gets news that his beloved mother has been killed, he vows to break out of prison and kill her killer and take with him his closest friend in prison, who is, unknowingly to Jarrett, undercover police detective Hank Fallon. Fallon has been sent in to infiltrate Jarrett's gang, gain his trust, and bring an end to Jarrett's massive crime and killing spree. Along with Cagney, many great actors contribute to the film, including Virginia Mayo as Jarrett's wife Verna, Margaret Wycherly as "Ma" Jarrett and Edmond O'Brien as his closest friend in prison, Vic Pardo, aka Hank Fallon.

Along with Cagney's spine-tinglingly diabolical performance, the two women playing his wife and mother are equally strong willed, something rarely seen in films of the time. I've noticed some films that have won critical acclaim, while excellent, suffer from too much acting. By this, I mean that the actors try so hard to play their part well, that when it viewed by the public, it comes off as unbelievable and contrived. As I said earlier, I had never fully seen a Cagney film before, but in this film, his portrayal of Jarrett comes off as very natural. He plays a terrible man, but, as cliche as it is to say, he's a gangster that you love to hate.

If you want to see a gangster film, look up Cagney. I'm sure that our modern day gangster films took a page from Cagney's films. Just from seeing this one film out of the many crime-drama films he made, Cagney was the epitome of an actor portraying a gangster. This is, to put it simply, a brilliant film.