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Raoul Walsh
James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran, John Archer, Wally Cassell Fred Clark
Writing Credits:
Virginia Kellogg (story), Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts

As a psychotic thug devoted to his hard-boiled ma, James Cagney - older, scarier and just as electrifying - give a performance to match his work in The Public Enemy as White Heat's cold-blooded Cody Jarrett. Thrillingly directed by Raoul Walsh, this fast-paced thriller tracing Jarrett's violent life both in and out of jail is also a harrowing character study. Jarrett is a psychological time bomb ruled by impulse. He murders a wounded accomplice and revels in the act. He neglects his sultry wife (Virginia Mayo) and adores his doting mother (Margaret Wycherly).

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Monaural

Runtime: 113 min.
Price: $19.97
Release Date: 1/25/2005

• Audio Commentary with Film Historian Dr. Drew Casper
• “Warner Night at the Movies”
• “White Heat: Top of the World” Documentary
• Trailer


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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White Heat (1949)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 18, 2005)

Sad but true: I first heard of the 1949 gangster classic White Heat due to Madonna. She included a song of the same title on her 1986 True Blue album, and she also did a cartoonish production number for the tune during her 1987 tour. The tune even included some soundbites from the flick’s climax.

At the start of Heat, gangster Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) leads his group on a railroad heist. They steal $300,000 from a mail train and cause public apprehension. Not all goes well, though, as gang member Zuckie (Ford Rainey) gets scalded and badly disfigured by steam from the train. In addition, other gang members chafe at Cody’s decision to hole up in the middle of nowhere while they wait for the pressure to dissipate. There they eke out a rough existence with Cody’s mother (Margaret Wycherly) and wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) until a massive storm allows them the distraction necessary to escape.

Cody promises to send a doctor back to help the ailing Zuckie, but he lies. He forces gang member Cotton (Wally Cassell) to shoot the maimed man, but he deceives Cody and only pretends to shoot Zuckie. This doesn’t buy the burn victim much time, however, as Zuckie eventually freezes to death. Hunters find him, and Treasury Department Agent Phillip Evans (John Archer) comes onto the case since his disfigurement seems related to the train accident. This gives him a lead and points toward Cody’s gang as the culprits.

Evans and his cohorts track down Cody and the others but the gangster shoots the agent and escapes with his Ma and Verna. With the T-men closing in, Cody enacts a clever plan: he pretends he pulled off a job in Illinois that will only send him to state prison for two years and that also gives him an alibi for the train robbery. However, Evans remains convinced that Cody wounded him and was the leader of the railroad job, so he puts pressure on Ma and Verna.

Although it sounds like a bad deal for the feds, Evans helps smooth the way for Cody’s Illinois imprisonment. He sends cohort Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) to pose as a prisoner, get close to Cody, and find out what he can about the situation. Hank gets the alias “Vic Pardo” and winds up as Cody’s cellmate, though Evans warms him that the gangster is mentally unstable and could crack at any moment. The rest of the film follows the events in prison, subsequent issues, and a slew of betrayals.

Since I watched Heat immediately after I screened 1931’s The Public Enemy, it became virtually impossible for me to avoid comparisons. Both cast Cagney as psychopathic gangsters with abnormally strong maternal attachments.

However, that’s where most of the similarities end, as the two follow very different paths. Enemy served more of a biographical function as we watched the criminal life of Tom Powers. Heat sticks with one specific period in its main character’s existence.

It also provides a significantly stronger movie. I liked Enemy, but I thought it suffered from some problems that undercut the project as a whole. On the other hand, Heat boasts few concerns as it seems consistently engrossing and satisfying.

As with Enemy, much of the credit goes to Cagney. He almost single-handedly made Enemy fly, and while he has more help in Heat, he still turns on the juice with this excellent performance. Unlike the unrelentingly psychotic Tom, Heat’s Cody displays some range. Sure, he’s clearly a nutbag, and his attachment to his Ma is really pretty creepy, but he evokes more sympathy from the audience here.

That comes as something of a surprise since Heat does less to show us how Cody came to be a gangster than Enemy did for Tom. The latter gets into Tom’s slow rise through the ranks, while Heat features Cody as a fully formed killer. Yeah, it occasionally hints of problems in his past, but it doesn’t focus much on those issues.

This allows Cagney to give a richer performance in Heat. Tom was a fascinating and ferocious character, but he lacked Cody’s depth. In addition to his psychoses, Cody displays intelligence, humor and some insight, and he also occasionally comes across as a bit sympathetic. He’s not just the mindless psychopath of Enemy, as he shows real humanity. There’s no way Tom would have demonstrated the agonized rage Cody feels when one particular character dies, and Cagney evokes all these emotions splendidly. (I also found it absolutely clear that Jack Nicholson borrowed liberally from Cagney’s work here for his turn as the Joker in Batman.)

However, Cagney doesn’t give the movie’s best performance. That honor goes to Wycherly as his Ma. Flinty, tough and nobody’s fool, she’s totally acceptable as the hard-edged leader with Cody gone but also believable as his caring mother. Wycherly lights up every scene in which she appears and becomes the best part of the movie.

These performances become especially important since Heat doesn’t focus on much of a plot. Happily, it lacks the narrative jerkiness of Enemy, but that doesn’t mean it gives us a very concise story. Not that I see that as a real problem. Yeah, the tale gets a bit muddled at times, but since the movie mostly concentrates on character studies, no true concerns emerge.

If I had to complain about something, it’d relate to the portrayal of the cops. I don’t mind that they’re fairly dull, as that’s inevitable; compared to Cody and his Ma, how could they hope to seem interesting? No, the bigger problem comes from the fact that so many of their scenes act as little more than bland exposition. Heat loves to show the cops and their technological toys. We see endless shots of them as they use these gizmos to track the gangsters. These create some good moments such as the quirky bit in which Cody darts into a drive-in theater to hide, but usually they make the story drag.

Despite that problem as well as some inconsistencies of logic, White Heat offers a consistently satisfying character piece. Granted, I find it hard to accept a thug with such a cute ‘n’ cuddly name like “Cody”, but Cagney’s creative performance overcomes that obstacle, and the rest of the movie follows suit. Heat is a firecracker of a gangster flick.

The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B-/ Bonus B

White Heat appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite a few minor concerns, Heat usually looked great.

Sharpness consistently seemed strong. Some minor softness interfered with a few shots, but those issues remained insubstantial. Overall, the movie seemed well defined and crisp. No problems with jagged edges or moiré effects occurred, and only a little light edge enhancement showed up at times. Black levels were reasonably deep and dense, and shadows appeared clear and appropriately opaque. Low-light shots looked well developed, and even some day-for-night images remained solid.

Usually movies as old as Heat lose points for print flaws, but they caused only moderate distractions here. Occasionally I noticed some specks, marks, lines and spots, but not with much frequency or intensity. With only a few exceptions, they stayed much less noticeable than expected. This ended up as a very strong transfer.

The monaural soundtrack of White Heat wasn’t quite as good, but it was moderately above average for its age. Though the lines lacked really natural tones, speech consistently sounded intelligible and the lines lacked edginess or other problems. Effects mostly seemed acceptably clean and accurate, though some louder elements like gunfire were slightly distorted.

Music appeared clear and bright. Dynamic range was unexceptional but perfectly adequate given the film’s vintage. I noticed no signs of source flaws like hiss or background noise. Ultimately, though the audio of Heat failed to excel, it also didn’t demonstrate any significant negatives. That meant it earned a somewhat above average “B-“.

As we move to the DVD’s extras, we begin with an audio commentary from film historian Dr. Drew Casper. He provides a running, screen-specific look at the film. More introspective than most of these pieces, Casper hits on a mix of topics. He discusses the work of Cagney and other participants and gets into how Heat fit within their careers. Casper goes over the roots of the story and its adaptation along with a lot about how it matches the social and psychological tone of its era. Casper provides much interpretation of storytelling elements as well as the director’s career and style, the atmosphere at Warner Bros., and censorship.

Some of this touches on simple facts and figures, but Casper digs deeper than that. He makes this a rich look at the story and its various facets. Unfortunately, a moderate amount of dead air mars the proceedings. However, those gaps don’t overwhelm, and this remains a strong chat.

A creative and fun addition to the set, Warner Night at the Movies attempts to replicate the cinematic experience circa 1949. As explained via a two-minute and 55-second introduction from Leonard Maltin, this feature includes a trailer for The Fountainhead - a flick from the same era as Heat - plus a period newsreel, a Bugs Bunny cartoon called Homeless Hare and a live-action Joe McDoakes short entitled So You Think You’re Not Guilty. These are the kinds of pieces that might have preceded a theatrical showing of Heat, so if you activate this feature, you get an attempt to duplicate a night at the cinema. I like this program and think it’s quite clever. Use the “Play All” option to run each of these features and then automatically launch into Heat.

In addition to the film’s trailer, the disc includes a new documentary called White Heat: Top of the World. This 16-minute and 50-second piece melds movie snippets, archival materials, and interviews. We get remarks from Casper, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, filmmaker/film historian Alain Silver, author/film professor Robert Sklar, film professor Dr. Lincoln D. Hurst, author Mark A. Vieira, author/film critic Andrew Sarris, author Eric Lax, and actor Virginia Mayo.

The participants discuss Cagney’s career prior to Heat and his return to Warner Bros., his approach to Cody and some interpretations of the role, issues related to other characters and actors, the gangster genre, As one might expect, some of the information repeats from Casper’s detailed commentary. Nonetheless, a fair amount of new material turns up here. The interpretation of the characters adds depth, as does the overall look at similar films. I wouldn’t call it a great program, but it offers reasonable quality.

One of the classic gangster movies, White Heat holds up well more than a half a century after its creation. A few moments drag, but not enough to cause concerns, and stunning performances from Jimmy Cagney and Margaret Wycherly help make it a real winner. The DVD presents very strong picture with positive audio and some good supplements. A fascinating and taut thriller, I definitely recommend White Heat.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.6363 Stars Number of Votes: 11
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