|Virginia Mayo and James Cagney in White Heat|
I may have to give up my mystery writer’s license for my admission: I’ve never liked watching James Cagney and avoid most of his films. But I see now, it’s been my loss. In White Heat, he plays a macho, mama’s boy, a complex character that Cagney pulls off with aplomb. White Heat is on everyone’s list of great gangster films. It’s also a heist movie with a reliable supporting cast — Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Steve Cochran, and a very convincing Margaret Wycherly as “Ma.” We’ve got guns and trains, prison violence, car chases and explosions, and still we don’t lose that sense of noir gloom. Virginia Kellogg picked up an Academy Award for Best Writing, and the 1949 film won the Best Picture Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America.
|Jean Servais threatening in Rififi|
No doubt an inspirational resource for many American crime films to follow, the word for White Heat is “American.” In 1955, The French produced Rififi a gangster/heist film that epitomized noir. In all fairness, the story was realized by American director Jules Dassain who had been banned from Hollywood, blacklisted during the notorious McCarthy era of “commie” hunters. Based on the Auguste Le Breton’s Du Rififi Chez Hommes novel, a recently released, over-the-hill gangster brings together a specialized crew to rob a high-end jewelry store. The meticulously planned (and filmed) robbery is worth the price of admission alone; but the film is not over. I suspect that anyone wanting to understand film noir would do well to study this masterpiece, not only for its story, but for the superior cinematography which captures the working streets of Paris in the mid-fifties.
If the diminutive Cagney casts a big shadows on the screen as the manic American tough guy, French actor Jean Servais, does it in reverse. His depression (ennui) is tangible without being melodramatic. In White Heat, Cagney is so intense we cannot take our eyes off him. In Rififi, Servais, the central character, almost doesn’t exist. It’s his immense and cool quiet that astounds. However, the last minutes of the film more than confirm the greatness of all that precede it and create a genuine work of art.
If you take in this double feature some night, consume with glasses of champagne or Pernod (if you’re the moody type) because the French are slightly victorious in the match of these two great films.