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Made it, Ma! Top of the world!!
Raoul Walsh's 1949 crime-noir classic White Heat marked the return of James Cagney to the role of which audiences had known him best: the tough, squinty-eyed, uncompromising gangster. Although Cagney had received a well-deserved Academy Award for charismatic performance as the sweet yet doggedly determined George M. Cohan in 1942's Yankee Doodle Dandy, his return to his gangster "roots", as it were, resulted in a film that remains one of the most memorable in its genre. From start to finish, White Heat is a riveting and powerfully entertaining piece of work.
Like most of the great noir films, the plot remains relatively simple and straightforward. Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a career criminal and brutal gangster, willing to sacrifice anyone (friend or foe) who stands the way of his ambitions. The film opens with a train heist in which he murders two engineers in cold blood, while a member of his gang is brutally blinded and disfigured after receiving a face full of scalding engine steam (a loose-end who Jarrett later orders to be summarily executed as the gang flees their safe house). Jarrett's gang includes his moll wife Verna (Virgina Mayo) and his mother (Margaret Wycherly), giving a chilling performance as the matriarch towards whom Jarett provides nothing unless than the utmost devotion. Oedipal underpinnings notwithstanding, their relationship provides the only element of stability in Jarrett's universe, a fierce if tenuous linkage at best. With the heat on his tail and nowhere to turn, Jarrett confesses to another crime that occurred in another state at the same time as the train heist, avoiding a probable life sentence for murder in exchange for a 3 year stint in the Big House. Yet another member of the gang has hooked up with Verna and is scheming to get Jarrett out of the picture, one way or another.
Meanwhile the Feds want that money back, so they concoct a plan in which agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien) enters prison with Jarrett and goes undercover as prisoner Vic Pardo. The pair becomes close buddies in prison, after Fallon saves Jarrett from an attempt on his life. They come up with a plan to... well, I should probably just stop right there. The problem with trying to sum up a film like White Heat is that sometimes even a little exposition is too much. And while the plot is compelling enough, the film really shines in its performances and stylish direction. Cagney of course is magnificent, which really isn't saying altogether too much -- until you actually watch him in this film. He's positively terrifying in multiple instances, a powderkeg of rage ready to detonate at a moment's notice. But he's also tender, frightened, and almost childlike at times. There's a twinkle in his eyes that easily shifts between murderous venom and adolescent confusion. The rest of the cast is exceptional as well, especially Margaret Wycherly and her chilling performance as Ma Garrett.
Director Raoul Walsh keeps everything going at an even clip. The film never slows down but never seems rushed either, keeping the suspense levels taught and the overall feeling of desperation pervasive throughout its near two-hour running time. It's an exciting, white-knuckle film, the ultimate dude's movie, and one of the best gangster/film noir films ever produced.
White Heat is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Warners has provided a pretty impressive transfer for this release. The black and white is moody and crisp, with fine sharpness levels (given the film's age) and spot-on contrasts. There is some very minor wear on the print, but nothing even approaching detrimental levels. The film simply looks wonderful for its age.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0, and does a standard job in presenting the material in a solid and pleasing manner. There is a bit of brightness to the dialog but it is presented with minimal muss or fuss. Orchestrations sound satisfactory. Noise and hiss is extremely minimal.
I want to buy a beer for whoever came up with the entire Warner Night at the Movies concept. It's a delicious conceit that really adds value to the entire package. With this feature (introduced by film critic Leonard Maltin), the viewer is presented with a recreation of a night at the movies from 60 some odd years past. The feature includes a theatrical trailer for The Fountainhead (they filmed my favorite Ayn Rand novel? Interesting...), a newsreel, a short entitled So You Think You're Not Guilty, and a cartoon entitled Homeless Hare featuring none other than Bugs Bunny. The cartoon isn't in the best of shape, but given the amount of material stuffed into this disc something had to give.
Author, film scholar, and professor Drew Casper provides a feature-length audio commentary, and although it takes something of a scholarly tone it remains a thoroughly informative listen.
There are no two ways about it: White Heat is a phenomenal film and a viscerally exciting slice of noir-tinged cinema. There is nothing you can't love in this film: great lines, seedy plots, snappy banter, colorful characters, uncompromising two-fisted brutality, hot women, tenacious T-Men, and James Cagney just rising above it all in one of his most memorable performances. This is a great movie, and it's a very impressive DVD. The presentation is satisfactory and the extras are more than worth your while. Don't let the fact that the film isn't part of Warner's legendary two-DVD line of classic films fool you: this disc is a winner. Check it out, either as an individual disc or part of the fantastic six-disc Warner Gangsters Collection.