This superb 1949 crime drama takes elements of plot, character, and theme familiar from ‘30s melodramas and orchestrates them as an existential tragedy noir. James Cagney, in a towering performance, is Cody Jarrett, a transparently psychotic robber with a molten temper, feral cunning, and mercurial charm that are finely calibrated extensions of the doomed gangsters he played a decade before, this time coiled not around a Depression-era impetus of greed or class rivalry, but an Oedipal bond. Cody’s beloved, calculating “Ma” (Margaret Wycherly) is the compass for his every move, her iron will and long shadow acknowledged not only by Cody but by his gang, his bored, restless wife (Virginia Mayo, radiating sensuality and guile), and the undercover cop (Edmond O’Brien) planted in Jarrett’s path.
Director Raoul Walsh propels the story from a rolling start, a tautly paced train robbery that goes awry, culminating in the leader’s capture. An ambitious henchman (Steve Cochran) plots a behind-bars hit foiled by O’Brien, who’s infiltrated the prison to befriend Jarrett, a goal handily accomplished with the rescue. Jarrett’s paranoia, murderous anger, and longing for his mother are interwoven with intermittent, incapacitating headaches that underline and amplify his core of inner rage; Cagney makes these seizures harrowing, revealing purely animal pain and terror at once frightening and pathetic.
Jarrett’s escape, the gang’s reunion with fellow escapee O’Brien aboard, trusted by Jarrett but not his partners, and the big score that unravels in a climactic gun battle in an oil refinery are conducted with a gritty economy, and Walsh and his cast evoke a criminal life devoid of glamour, noteworthy for the undercurrents of distrust that keep tempers flaring. The final showdown, and Jarrett’s crazed, taunting battle cry in the face of death (“Top of the world, Ma!”), achieve a sense of tragic inevitability that deservedly make this a defining moment in Cagney’s screen career. —Sam Sutherland
Raoul Walsh’s 52-year directorial career made him a Hollywood legend, and the slam-band nature of his best films means that he is still remembered while the memory of Allan Dwan, a director with an equally long career, has practically faded from public consciousness. Walsh was also an actor: He appeared in the first version of W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain renamed Sadie Thompson (1928) opposite Gloria Swanson in the title role. He would have played the Cisco Kid in his own film In Old Arizona (1928) if an errant jackrabbit hadn’t cost him his right eye by leaping through the windshield of his automobile. Warner Baxter filled the role and won an Oscar. Before John Ford and Nicholas Ray, it was Raoul Walsh who made the eye-patch almost as synonymous with a Hollywood director as Cecil B. DeMille’s jodhpurs.
He interned with the best, serving as assistant director and editor on D.W. Griffith’s racist masterpiece, The Clansman, better known as read more