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White Heat (1949)
White Heat is a 1949 film noir starring James Cagney, Virginia Mayo and Edmond O'Brien and featuring Margaret Wycherly, and Steve Cochran. Directed by Raoul Walsh from the Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts screenplay based on a story by Virginia Kellogg, it is considered one of the classic gangster films and was added to the National Film Registry in 2003 as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress. Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) is the ruthless, deranged leader of a criminal gang. Although married to Verna (Virginia Mayo), Jarrett is overly attached to his equally crooked and determined mother, "Ma" Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly), his only real confidante. Cody suffers from debilitating headaches and his mother consoles him each time. Early in the film she sits him on her lap and gives him a shot of whiskey with the toast, "Top of the world." It is later revealed that Jarrett's father died in an insane asylum. Jarrett and his gang rob a train, resulting in the deaths of four members of the train crew and a Jarrett accomplice, Zuckie (Ford Rainey).
Cagney had been out of the gangster scene for nearly a decade, but he made his triumphant return to the genre here in one of his most memorable roles ever. It's got little to do with the plot, however. Cody's gang plans a big heist, while an undercover cop infiltrates his gang in prison, after saving Cody from an assassination attempt. Finally, once Cody is out and the heist is underway, the 'copper' betrayal is revealed, and things go south as the cops close in (very slowly -- during a 15-minute sequence with the cops using directional radios to locate the car they're driving -- it must've been a crazy high-tech idea at the time, but the rotating antennae and map plotting come off as tediously dull today).
Ultimately, Cody makes his last stand, screaming out his famous 'Made it, Ma! Top of the world!' as he goes down in flames. And it's Cagney's unforgettable dialogue and brazen attitude that make White Heat a classic. Strangely, many people seem to omit it from the classic gangster canon -- and it's probably due to the combination of too-tedious plot and a meaningless title that have kept it out of the ranks of films like The Public Enemy. But never mind all that. If you're looking for Cagney's best gangster role ever, you got it right here, on the top of the world.
The new DVD includes a commentary track, featurette, and Leonard Maltin intro and archival material.