White Heat: At the Top of the Greatest Gangster Movies

As much as I love watching old movies, I have to confess that I haven’t spent much time thinking about them lately and therefore haven’t been doing a very good job of keeping up with my blog. Living here in Green Bay Packers country, the last few weeks have mostly been spent in nervous anticipation of the Super Bowl followed by jubilant celebration of their world championship, and that’s pretty much all I was able to think about. I was surprised when I looked at the calendar and realized it had been over two weeks since I last watched a movie, but I guess that’s what happens when you have an all consuming love for your football team, which we certainly do here in Titletown.

Anyway, enough of me boring you with my football talk. :-) Last night I finally got back to my other great love, watching old movies, and to start things off I decided to step outside my comfort zone by watching the movie White Heat (1949), a movie that is often considered to be in both the film noir and gangster film genres, the latter being defined by the American Film Institute (AFI) as “a genre that centers on organized crime or maverick criminals in a twentieth century setting.”

I had long resisted watching gangster movies, mostly due to the fact that I’m usually not comfortable watching violent scenes, but based on some glowing reviews of the movie and high praise for the performance of its star James Cagney, I decided to introduce myself to the genre by watching White Heat. I was actually nervous about watching it and almost decided not to, but I’m so glad I did. I loved the movie and was so riveted by Cagney’s performance that I was able to handle the violence, which turned out not to be as bad as I thought it would be.

The ‘Dynamic’ James Cagney

In one of the more famous scenes from the movie, Cagney’s character Cody Jarrett is given some bad news regarding his mother with whom he has an unhealthy fixation, and his reaction was one of the most intense things I’ve ever witnessed in a movie. I literally got chills when I was watching the scene and listening to commentary about how Cagney prepared for it. What makes it even more interesting is that White Heat’s director Raoul Walsh decided not to tell the rest of the cast what was about to happen in the scene, so Cagney’s reaction was a surprise to everyone including many of the extras who apparently became terrified because of his violent portrayal.

Cagney’s inspiration for the scene was said to have come from a visit he made as a boy to an insane asylum as well as his exposure to the alcoholic rages he witnessed from his father when he was a child. It’s something you really have to witness for yourself to understand its powerful nature. If you haven’t seen it before, I would recommend that you watch it within the context of the movie to get the full effect, but if I have piqued your curiosity and you don’t want to wait, you can watch a clip of the scene here.

Virginia Mayo, who plays James Cagney’s wife in this movie had this to say about him, “Jimmy Cagney was the most dynamic man who ever appeared on the screen. He should have won five Oscars, he was so fabulous. He stimulated me to such an extent. I must say that I didn’t have to act very much; I just had to react to him because he was so powerful.” She admitted that Cagney actually scared her during filming of White Heat, which illustrates just what a great actor he was. On a side note, I thought Virginia was excellent in this movie in a role for which she received some of the best reviews of her career.

White Heat is considered by many to be one of the best gangster movies ever made, and in June 2008, the American Film Institute named it the fourth best movie in the gangster film genre. Also, the line “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!,” which was uttered by James Cagney in the final scene of the movie and is one of the most famous quotes from gangster movies, can be found at number 18 on their list of the greatest movie quotes of all time.

I’m sure just about everyone has certain types of movies they have no interest in or just can’t get themselves to watch. If you’re like me and have avoided gangster movies in the past, I would highly encourage you to watch White Heat. My experience serves as a reminder that you never know if you’ll like something until you try it. :-)
What are some of your favorite gangster movies?

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  1. John says:

    I just watched the 1938 Warner Bros. film, Racket Busters. It is all about the Manhattan trucking rackets in the 1930’s. Humphrey Bogart gets top billing as mobster (Martin). He wants to take control of the produce market in the city by controlling the truckers using fear and intimidation in the process. But don’t blink, you just might miss Bogey with his relative low amount of screen time.

    This picture definitely belongs to George Brent(Denny) and fellow trucker Allen Jenkins (Skeets). The story revolves around standing up to corruption. In the beginning Denny is all for him and his fellow truckers resisting Martin and his thugs. But he is forced to join Martin’s side after Martin witnesses Denny in a robbery he committed to support his ailing wife.

    Skeets stays firm and falls back into the tomato business. But nothing is safe. Martin and his cronies turn the pressure up with murder and thug like tactics. Very predictable ending with Skeets giving former truckers a heartfelt speech to rally them back to the good side. Denny also gets back with his truckers after Skeets is shot. Justice prevails as Martin winds up behind bars. A very simple story but very entertaining. The film is only 71 minutes in length holding your attention throughout.

    In my opinion, Allen Jenkins is a very underrated actor and does his usual fine job playing a typical New York 1930’s guy/mug with that unforgettable NY “accent.”. His facial expressions are priceless. Jenkins acting always adds to any gangster film. George Brent was very believable in his role. I now find myself wanting to see more and more of his work.

    This is a great gangster film for the beginning gangster film fan. A big mistake someone could make who is just getting into gangster films is watching Little Caesar first. Although a very good film, I really don’t feel the acting is polished in Little Caesar. You just might get the wrong impression. Gangster films that follow have definitely have more polished acting and the characters are easier to relate to.

    The comedic elements added to later gangster movies make them so much better. Jenkins appears in many gangster films and always seems to provide that much needed funny moment here and there.

  2. John says:

    White Heat was a very good film. The unforgettable line, “made it Ma, top of the world” at the end of this movie is classic Cagney.

    I like the comedic elements Cagney adds to this gangster flick with his kicking of a chair. Which in turn causes Mayo’s character to fall. I read in one of Cagney’s biographies that Jimmy cooked up this improvisation of the scene all by himself. He asked Mayo if he could do it, not wanting to hurt her.

    Another funny moment although deadly serious is when Cagney asks the mug in the trunk who can’t breathe, “need a little air?” He then promptly fires a few bullets into the trunk. Although he just killed somebody, you jut can’t help but laugh knowing it is only a movie.

    Cody Jarret is a ruthless killer but Cagney’s performance in the film is special. In some small way you do find yourself having some sympathy toward Jarrett.