White Heat is a very prototypical crime film. We have the gangster Cody Jarrett - James Cagney returning to the genre after a disappointing effort to broaden his horizons. There's a daring train robbery, evasion from the police, manipulation of the legal system, an undercover agent, skullduggery within Jarrett's gang, and a final gunfight to (literally) blow the rest of the film out of the water.
If not for the control of Jarrett's mother (the film was loosely based on Ma Barker's gang), we would have merely a well-plotted film. The relationship between these two seems to define every other relationship within the gang, even with Jarrett's wife, who has come to understand the situation too late for her comfort. Mother and son are strangely dependent, and lean on each other for strength. Perhaps Ma leaves the picture too soon, but leave it she must for all the fallout that must happen.
The weakness is in the peripheral characters. Most are drawn one-dimensionally, but the screen time for many is too short to be more than an annoyance. Where we really need the depth is with Big Ed (a turncoat in Jarrett's gang) and Fallon, the undercover infiltrator. Jarrett's wife Verna shows signs of complex behavior, but there's little exploration (some of which is begging for it).
If this film were made today, there would have been enough screen time to fit in both character and plot, and the wild ride remains worth it. With all the turns the movie makes, it still never quite feels rushed, which is a bit of a surprise to me. Perhaps it's the subtle differences between older film and its modern form. Whatever the reason, White Heat is supremely watchable and worthwhile.
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