Review: White Heat

James Cagney stars in what could be one of his most prominent roles from 1949, and having not seen any of his other films, I can believe it!

(I know, some of you might be shaking your heads at the fact I’ve not seen many older films… I do try!)

Cagney plays a criminal named Cody Jarrett, a sadistic and crazed leader of a gang of thieves. He suffers from fierce self-deluded headaches which only his supportive but aggressively protective mother can cure. His wife, played by Virginia Mayo, is often pushed aside in this relationship and is swept up between Cody and Ed, one of his men looking to take control of their operations.

How refreshing it is to watch an older film that does so many things right that modern films seem to have forgotten. White Heat is a short but excellent well paced crime drama, and is surprisingly involved for such a simple concept. Cagney’s psychotic leading man is central to the film as he battles betrayal and the tightening noose of the police hounding after him. He is eccentric and tough, and his strong bond with his mother gets your attention immediately; here is a character who is both emotionally bound to family in one scene, but then locks a man in a car boot before riddling it with bullet holes in the next!
Following the villain, a straight up villain, is unusual! But the uncontrolled nature of the man just keeps you watching to see where the story takes him next.

The film goes from one location and one scenario to the next, we have train heists and prison breaks, all with some excellent physical action and set pieces, fitting neatly into under two hours! It doesn’t drag with over-explaining, it simply takes you along for the ride.

It hasn’t even aged too badly either, any fan of 1940-50s American gangster stories must apply. I was pleasantly surprised by this dive into the past.

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