WHITE HEAT (1949). Directed by Raoul Walsh, who was a prolific, likable, often excellent craftsman of action-packed melodramas,Westerns and crime stories.
James Cagney, who had contributed much to the gangster genre in the 1930s (but also to lighter movies) had not been an outlaw or racketeer since the THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939). Here he comes back in top form, as Cody Jarrett, a snarling, psychotic, ruthless gang leader with a mother fixation. Though his Oedipus complex is perhaps unique within crime thrillers, WHITE HEAT avoids over-Freudianism.
Cagney gives one of his most forceful performances. Margaret Wycherly plays the all-time best underworld ma, a tense, unsmiling, disturbing figure who will go to any lengths to protect her boy.Virginia Mayo is a memorable, duplicitous moll.
Fast-paced, suspenseful action is tough, avoids both pathos and bathos. It takes place in California and in an Illinois penitentiary where canny Jarrett has placed himself on a lesser charge, as an alibi for murder in California. Agent Edmond O'Brien is a quick-thinking undercover plant who works his way into Cagney's friendship.
When Jarrett learns that his mother was killed and that his right hand man has taken both his gang and his wife, he goes crazy. He breaks out of prison in one of the most explosive --and most anthologized --endings in movies. This is the kind of tough-as-nails action film that to this day only America seems able to produce effectively. Among gangster melodramas WHITE HEAT is at the head of the class. (Edwin Jahiel)