|"Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" But NOT at the Oscars...|
White Heat is a near-perfect crime drama. It's only flaw lies in a few distracting and unnecessary scenes of modern FBI surveillance techniques. However, the riveting story, the top-notch direction of Raoul Walsh, the performances of every member of the cast, and particularly Cagney, pushed those scenes way into the backdrop. As Cody Jarrett, the sociopathic head of a criminal gang, and a son who clings to his aging outlaw Ma with disturbing overtones of mental incest, Cagney brings all of his many talents to work.
The scene which showcases the best of Cagney takes place in a prison dining hall. Cody has been fearful for his Ma's life, and asks a recently incarcerated acquaintance about her. The result is nothing less than startling. It is known now that Cagney asked Walsh to just begin shooting the scene, not revealing what he intended to do with it. He only asked that two strong guys be placed on either side of him at the table. You cannot mistake the genuine shock on the faces of not only the extras, but also co-star Edmund O'Brien. They didn't have to act with this one. Cagney's chilling reaction is delivered in a way that attendants at an insane asylum might easily recognize as the behavior of insanity.
Cagney was not even nominated for best actor, nor was Walsh for best director, nor the movie itself. White Heat was totally excluded from the Oscars, except for one failed nomination for the story. Broderick Crawford won best actor that year for All the King's Men, and although it was a very good movie, I do not believe it deserved the top award of Best Movie. While Crawford's performance was quite good, Cagney's was superb. It is inexplicable to me that Cagney was completely passed over. (If you are a fan of the classic gangster movies, see my series "Mobsters, Pals and Skirts" -- posted on this blog in April, 2011.)
My next installment in "Overlooked at the Oscars" will deal with another hard-to-believe loss in 1996.