White Heat (1949)

Our long time collaborator, 16mm projectionist and film collector Chris Wibberley, writes for us about the classic gangster film, White Heat. 


While White Heat, despite being an old film, was no means the first American gangster films. Although its star, James Cagney, did feature in some early pre-code films, namely as William Wellmans in The Public Enemy for Warner Brothers in 1931. This film established him as a star and set the style for the kind of film he would forever be associated with, it was in fact the type of film James Cagney never had any particular passion for!

Cagney worked as a song and dance man in Broadway in the 1920’s, and it was in this particular field that Cagney felt most at home. To an extent he was able to achieve this in Hollywood. The film Footlight Panache (1933) suited Cagney’s style but it was really with Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), a biopic of songwriter George M. Cohen, that Cagney felt he had made something he was justly proud of. So much so that he set up his own production company to continue to make these kinds of films.

While this may have fulfilled a personal ambition, it proved not to be commercially expedient, especially in an unforgiving industry like Hollywood. There were some modestly successful productions, however the final film made a loss of some half a million dollars. It became necessary for Cagney to approach the major studios in order to stay in the industry . His natural choice was to return to Warner Brothers with whom he had made so many successful films such as The Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties. These films had made Cagney’s name but typecast him in the roles of the gangster.

Naturally, when Cagney approached Warner Brothers in 1949, the studio wanted to make another gangster film as a ‘safe bet’. Fortunately for Cagney, and for us today, he was given Raul Walsh to work with. Walsh was a seasoned director and had been in Hollywood since the earliest days of filmmaking. In 1915 he had a featured part as John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, in D.W.Griffiths groundbreaking and hugely influential The Birth of a Nation based on the Rev. Thomas Dixon’s novel The Klansman.

 Although White Heat was only afforded a low-budget by the studio, Cagney and Walsh between them enacted what is now considered to be one of the best gangster movies of all time. Based on a novel by Virginia Kellogg, much of the inspiration for the picture came from real life gangsters. The Barker-Karpis gang were one of the most violent, long-lived depression era gangs and their spree of violence only came to a head when Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker was apprehended by Federal Agents in 1935 and his mother, ‘Ma’ Barker, was killed in a shootout with police eight days later. Cagney and Margaret Wycherley brilliantly portray characters based on these two people in White Heat. Virginia Mayo was cast as the gangster’s moll, an undemanding role, and it is reasonable to say that Mayo was an actress of limited scope despite being given equal billing with Cagney.

Whilst the film is considered noir in some circles, it can’t be classed as such in the strictest sense. There are certainly nourish elements to the films, but it is primarily a gangster picture, with aspects of heist and prison drama. It was an influence on later films such as John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956).

Although Cagney plays a gangster in White Heat this is no way a re-run of the roles he played in gangster movies of the 1930’s. This was a much more vicious, psychopathic killer and a template for the films to follow in the modern era. So much so, any keen student of the gangster genre would do well to give White Heat a viewing.

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