White Heat (1949)
1.33:1 (Full Frame)
Dolby Digital Mono
Warner Home Video, $19.95

Although it was released in 1949, today White Heat plays like the summation of the Warner Bros. gangster cycle of the 1930s. The picture offers the same combination of social commentary and violent personal drama that characterizes the best of the Warner crime films (Public Enemy, The Roaring Twenties) and explores the genre’s dark themes to their fullest potential. Although White Heat follows the “crime doesn’t pay” formula dictated by the era’s Production Code, the passionless conformity of the men who chase the criminals is ultimately as unpleasant as the casual violence those criminals commit.

Cody Jarrett (James Cagney), the ostensible hero of the piece, is a psychopath with no sense of morality — his only allegiance is to his beloved mother. Cagney plays Jarrett as an amalgam of all the gangsters he ever portrayed, turning in a performance that manages to be both exhilarating and repulsive. One of the reasons White Heat has aged so well is the abundance of energy on display in both Cagney’s performance and the picture’s visual style. Cagney never stops moving, and the film has a nervous, restless quality that keeps the audience riveted from beginning to end. The camerawork by Sid Hickox, ASC is invisible in the classical sense because it is motivated by the characters and action, yet there is no shortage of stylish choreography — the simple act of following an extreme character like Jarrett justifies moving the camera in inventive ways.

Hickox and White Heat director Raoul Walsh were frequent collaborators, and together they perfected a visual language that expressed the contradictions and passions of some extremely tormented protagonists. Few filmmakers of the studio era were as focused on the particulars of their characters’ professions as Walsh, and the specificity of scenes portraying the planning and execution of crimes makes White Heat feel universal; it’s easy to relate to Jarrett and his band of violent criminals because they’re essentially working stiffs, like most of us. Yet despite their willingness to convey the feel of everyday life in the Forties, Walsh and Hickox are clearly delighted by the opportunities for heightened emotion that the action sequences provide, and they create some striking imagery, particularly in the climactic oil-refinery robbery.

This new DVD of White Heat captures both the realistic and expressionistic details of the picture with a solid transfer that preserves Hickox’s stylish black-and-white cinematography, though the source materials exhibit a few scratches and other imperfections. The clarity of the monaural soundtrack is a vast improvement over previous home-video releases, allowing a greater appreciation for the film’s layered sound design.

Film scholar Drew Casper (of the University of Southern California) assesses White Heat’s content, style and niche in film history in an exemplary commentary track. He also contributes an interview to White Heat: Top of the World, a 16-minute featurette in which he and other interviewees — including filmmaker Martin Scorsese, film scholar Robert Sklar, and actress Virginia Mayo (who is seen in an archival interview) — contextualize White Heat within the gangster genre and Cagney’s career.

Also included is the supplement “Warner Night at the Movies,” which re-creates the experience a filmgoer of 1949 might have had at White Heat: there’s a trailer for The Fountainhead, a newsreel in which Harry S. Truman speaks at the United Nations, a comic short starring George O’Hanlon, and the Bugs Bunny cartoon Homeless Hare (an apparent anachronism, given that this short was actually released in 1950). Film critic Leonard Maltin introduces these thoroughly enjoyable shorts with comments that are both instructive and entertaining.

White Heat can be purchased on its own or in the DVD boxed set The Warner Gangsters Collection, which retails for $62.95 and also includes The Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces, Little Caesar, The Petrified Forest and The Roaring Twenties.

— Jim Hemphill

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.