The story opens with a train robbery and takes in various shoot-outs and chases plus a nerve-wracking spell in prison for Edmund O’Brien, who plays a cop impersonating an inmate to try to get close to Cody Jarrett (James Cagney), the leader of a gang of hard-core criminals. I loved the part with the photo of the ‘wife’ O’Brien doesn’t know. It’s sent to him by the police to identify the female officer who’s going to be his contact on visiting days but when Jarrett discovers it first and displays it and O’Brien doesn’t recognise it, things get very tense, as they do whenever Jarrett’s deaf, lip-reading pal is about. The way Jarrett receives news of his mother’s death is another one of the stand-out moments whilst they’re in prison.
Considering the time, the look of the film is straight-forward. It was probably one of the few crime dramas in the late 40’s not to be bathed in shadows: the lighting here is not at all noir-ish. But the film is quite interested in new technology - maybe it was the Enemy of the State of its day - and there’s an almost sci-fi look to some of the scenes showing the police’s radio technology and the chemical plant which is the setting for the famous ‘Top of the World’ finale.
White Heat gives us one of cinema’s great twisted mother-son relationships alongside Psycho and The Manchurian Candidate. Margaret Wycherly does an excellent job of playing the kind of mean-faced old crone no one could love except a son. John Archer- who plays the main police investigator, and Steve Cochran, the spiv who lures away Jarrett’s dissatisfied wife (he of course pays a heavy price for that) are good, as is Virginia Mayo as Jarrett’s wife, always looking like some strange, troubled, human-feline hybrid. Edmund O’Brien (what a great face that man had) is as interesting to watch as he was in The Killers and Cagney looks not only older but nastier than in his 1930’s gangster films. He scares the hell out of his wife and everyone else, and wreaks havoc whenever he’s not incapacitated by mind-bending headaches. At one point Mayo annoys him while she’s standing on a chair and he kicks it right out from under her. In a way it’s a moment that deserves to be as famous as the grapefruit-in-the-face scene in The Public Enemy (1931); on the other hand, it’s just one of many great scenes in this film.
White Heat was directed by Raoul Walsh and it’s his best film. They Drive by Night (1940) is almost as good, and The Roaring Twenties (1939) and High Sierra (1941) are also worth watching.