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White Heat (1949)| Review

Updated: May 31, 2022

I've only seen a few gangster films since I became a film lover. That being The Public Enemy, The Godfather films, and Angels With Dirty Faces. And while I've seen those three, I feel like they didn't give me the gist of the "Real Gangster" genre. Obviously, those films belong to the Gangster genre, but they don't really represent the true gangster films of the 1930s through the 50s. The Public Enemy influenced many subsequent gangster films, yet it only offers a minor glimpse into the genre as a whole. Every cinephile has seen The Godfather, yet again it doesn't represent the Gangster genre. That leaves me with Angles With Dirty Faces. It does fall under the Gangster genre, but I consider it more as a melodrama than a hard-boiled gangster film. And through this absence of gangster films in the films I've seen, led me to White Heat.

It's Noirvember again, a time where cinephiles marathon noir films through the entire month of November. If you look under my list of favorite films, a major number of them are film noirs. I believe the genre to be the best belonging to film. It blends both a unique style and interesting story-lines, given that they tend to follow detectives. Famous film noirs also happen to be some of the best films of all time, like The Third Man, Out of the Past, and In A Lonely Place. And though these things are some definite highlights of the genre as a whole, the sheer scope of cinema it has is phenomenal. What I mean by that is that there's not a concrete definition of a noir film. While there are the tropes that help characterize the genre, its film library is vast. Some people would argue that 1946's Notorious is a film noir, yet it has very little in common with other films from the genre. And that's what separates film noir from other genres, its vast characteristics, and its many masterpieces. Though the characteristics it shares with other noir films, I find that White Heat is a definite film noir.

White Heat follows a typical gangster film. Gangster Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) and his gang get thrown into prison after a failed robbery. They later get out of prison and attempt another robbery, but they are unaware of the fact that one of their new friends is actually an undercover cop.

White Heat combines some of the best writing and direction in all of cinema. The script never wastes a moment in time. Nearly every scene works to its peak and carries some baggage towards the next scene while also building upon the one before it. The structure of the film obviously stands out as one of its highlights. At times, the film almost feels like a book. At the end of the film, the audience almost feels like they have stepped into the life of a gangster and examined the inner-mind of such character. Most of that sense derives from the script, however, Raoul Walsh delivers a great job at helping that. Walsh delivers an absolute masterclass in direction. He frames the shots and guides performances that really produce the best of what an actor is capable of. While this is the only film that I've seen directed by Walsh, it ultimately delivers a sense of what he tries to accomplish as a director and which has ultimately landed him a spot on my favorite directors list.

While White Heat is without a doubt an excellent film in more ways than one, James Cagney's performance definitely towers it. He does star in films like The Public Enemy and Angels With Dirty Faces, among others, yet this film definitely defines his career. What's ironic is that Cagney wanted to give up on gangster films shortly before joining the cast of White Heat, yet he ultimately gives the definition of his skill as a gangster actor in this film. This masterwork of a performance combined with Walsh's skill behind the camera produces the ultimate definition of the gangster genre. This performance calls to mind the gangster films of past times. Cagney almost comes off as a method-actor in this film, due to his transformation into this character. If not for Cagney's performance in this film, then the common gangster character of the 50s and 60s would look drastically different.

Ultimately White Heat resembles the pinnacle of the gangster genre. Though some would argue that The Godfather 1 or 2 belongs to that spot, this film does what that film set out to do nearly 25 years before. The gangster genre has somewhat diminished over the years. Nowadays, audiences are lucky enough to maybe receive one decent gangster film every 2 or 3 years. Back then, audiences couldn't possibly see every gangster film premiering. If a cinephile wants to catch a glimpse of the golden age of Hollywood and the Gangster genre, then I without a doubt recommend the 1949 masterpiece known as White Heat.

Time Stamp: November 2020

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