A psychotic gangster escapes from prison along with
his cellmate, who is secretly an undercover federal agent.
White Heat (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts
Starring James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien,
Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran, John Archer, Wally Cassell
Oscar Nominations - Best Original Story
White Heat is one of the most influential gangster films ever made. It's considered to be James Cagney's greatest performance in some circles, and it's not hard to see why. Cagney transforms into a pure psychopath, a character that would greatly influence future cinematic gangsters like Sonny Corleone, Tony Montana, and Tommy DeVito. The film is an exciting, tense thriller from start to finish, with a great ensemble behind Cagney. For a film made in the midst of the Hays Code, it gets away with quite a lot of violence, but it still had to obey the code, so crime doesn't pay.
Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a feared gang leader who goes to prison for a lesser charge and learns one of his guys, Big Ed (Cochran), has taken over his gang in Cody's absence. So, Cody plans a daring prison break with his cellmate Vic Pardo (O'Brien), who is actually federal agent Hank Fallon, who was sent to spy on Cody and earn his trust. Cody is a nutcase with serious mommy issues and a very short fuse, and Cagney's performance is pure perfection. He sells it so well.
Gangster flicks were a dime a dozen in the first half of the 20th century, along with musicals and westerns. They were easy to make and pulled in a decent box office gross, so there are a ton of them just sitting out there. Some like White Heat have lasted this long because they stand out. This film is a hell of a ride and is still able to surprise and thrill audiences today.