There is much to be said of the underlying themes found throughout White Heat. Freudian undertones are typical and clear throughout this Raoul Walsh-directed venture, and they are utilised well. Pinstriped suits, Pontiac model cars screeching through the streets in high-speed pursuits. An exceptional light is shone on the iconography of a decade that would soon erupt into something larger than anyone could have imagined. Such is the way of the post-war period, and a febrile majority wanted home-grown villains, especially having vanquished others in a country far from their own. Audiences were and always will be fascinated with crime and the titillating details that can bleed out of them, White Heat may be the best of the rotten bunch.
It’s not the cops that Arthur Jarrett (James Cagney) and his crew have to worry about, it’s each other. With fearsome features and a stare that could kill those that come across it, Jarrett and his life of crime are to be reckoned with. As he turns himself in voluntarily for an easier sentence, an undercover agent infiltrates the prison along with him, to monitor his behaviour. Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien), now under the guise of Vic Pardo, keeps the investigators in the loop on Jarrett’s behaviour, which descends rapidly into a state of mania and insanity. Walsh keeps his audience on the ropes well enough. Is his descent into madness a façade or a genuine admission of guilt and deranged grief? Cagney plays with these ideas well, and a resolute supporting cast are handy in building such a strong performance up to this level of excellence.
That is not to say that the supporting performers are less engaging or exciting than Cagney. A loyal array of brilliant actors makes for a treacherous bunch that, if they had it their way, would put Jarrett in a place worse than the slammer. Not quite highlighted as well as it could, the deceit and death that lingers around Cagney’s character is good enough for this story, but falls short when attempting to detail his motif. Besides mania, he has no drive other than anger, and the supporting narrative strands soon give way, the threads are shorter than expected, with the final half-hour completely removed from any of the prominent characters featured in the first act. An odd change to make, but one that lets the leading man shine brightly.
A tremendous way to introduce yourself to Cagney, White Heat offers thrilling moments and cold-hearted brutality. With strong performances the whole way through, it is tremendous to see Walsh utilise his cast so prominently and with such precision. His charms are lost somewhat when they adapt the second act, not quite rivalling the smug mafioso presented at the start, and the manic momma’s boy that he rounds the film off with. Something is lost in the middle of it all, that key to unlocking the greater throes of the mentality of a mobster, although even without that, White Heat offers a tremendous experience.