“Made it, ma! Top of the world!” is often listed as one of the greatest lines in cinema history, and is in fact from a climactic moment in Jimmy Cagney gangster flick White Heat. If you already knew that, you’ll know White Heat is a stone cold classic, but if not, this new dual Blu-ray/DVD release from HMV can remedy the gap in your knowledge.
Cagney plays gang leader Cody Jarrett; after a train heist leaves four dead, Jarrett confesses to a lesser crime as an alibi, getting away with only a short prison sentence. We then follow Edmond O’Brien’s Hank Fallon, a cop going undercover as Jarrett’s cellmate in order to infiltrate the gang.
It’s a fast-paced, twisting thriller, as Fallon narrowly misses being discovered more than once during his prison stint, and things only get more heart pounding during the later heist sequence. As Jarrett’s unfaithful wife Verna, Virginia Mayo plays it tougher and cooler than the stereotypical gangster moll, though it would be nice for her to have more to do in the final act.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly Cagney, whose performance raises White Heat above typical cops ‘n’ robbers fare into an intense study of a psychologically troubled character. Jarrett is a mob boss audiences hadn’t seen before – not a detached schemer but an absolute psychopath, taking glee at personally offing a disloyal henchman before immediately offering his arm and an unforgettably malevolent grin to Verna. He’s also plagued by headaches and has a strange obsession with his mother, vulnerabilities that Cagney twists into an unhinged unpredictability that terrifies both Jarrett’s cohorts and the viewer. It’s a masterfully unsettling performance, and it makes White Heat a must watch.
And if you must watch it, you must get this version. The film’s noir-seeped cinematography looks stunning on the cleaned-up Blu-ray format, which also comes with a great set of extras. Most interesting is Warner Night at the Movies, which allows you to watch the film preceded by all the extra bits and pieces you’d have got in a real 1949 movie theatre – a trailer, newsreel, a Bugs Bunny cartoon (in which the rabbit enacts much more violence on a builder than Cagney ever did on anyone) and a zany live action short called So You Think You’re Not Guilty. It’s a really fun way to experience the movie and to learn a little more about cinema history.
Then there’s a featurette analysing White Heat, which is pretty standard fare and has been on DVD releases before, though one of the interviewees is the great Martin Scorsese. An insightful commentary from film historian Dr. Drew Caspar rounds off this high quality package. Treat yourself to a night at the movies with Mr. Cagney (and Bugs), and you’ll feel on top of the world, too.
WHITE HEAT (1949) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: RAOUL WALSH / SCREENPLAY: IVAN GOFF, BEN ROBERTS / STARRING: JAMES CAGNEY, VIRGINIA MAYO, EDMOND O’BRIEN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (HMV EXCLUSIVE)