From the Armistice to the Wall Street Crash, "this film is a memory." The opening is a joke to set the barrel-rolling tone, three doughboys in a WWI crater, trading quips and cigarettes amid explosions. Back in America, the rotten one (Humphrey Bogart) joins the mob, the righteous one (Jeffrey Lynn) turns to the law, and the one in between (James Cagney) slides from quintessential "forgotten man" to impetuous bootlegger. The soldier’s homecoming is a rickety tenement, the elusive babe (Priscilla Lane) turns out to be a schoolgirl with a song (cf. Anderson’s The Master), the hooch racket is the answer for the discarded warrior who’s "tired of shadowboxing." As a rival Prohibition shark (Paul Kelly) circles the territory, Bogart looks at Cagney and scoffs: "You must have been reading about Napoleon..." If Raoul Walsh didn’t invent the Warners style, then he certainly brought it to its electric apex with this catalogue of speakeasies, raids, betrayals, and shootouts, a scrappy chart of the Jazz Age’s fickle waves of opulence and ruin. (Tossing in a blender everything from liquored-up car crashes to clouds of scattered bills, Don Siegel’s montages are imagist cataracts verging on the Vertovian.) The tragedy is that of a nation awakening to the joyride’s hangover, and of a man who can’t see the sadness in the eyes of the weathered chanteuse (Gladys George) by his side. The view of crime as a mushrooming business ("This is a corporation," the protagonist declares to a wad of soiled cash, surely a Robert Rossen line) is dilated by Polonsky in Force of Evil, then brought to an abstract plane by Boorman in Point Blank. Heading out to his final showdown with Bogart, the ruined Cagney pauses just long enough to wryly contemplate the empty beer mug on a saloon piano; moments later, Walsh on the steps of a church serves up a Pietà for the entire mythology of the gangster genre. (Consider White Heat a resurrection and a derangement.) Cinematography by Ernest Haller. With Frank McHugh, Elisabeth Risdon, Edward Keane, Joe Sawyer, and Abner Biberman. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce