Irresistible gangster pic, often cited as a run-of-the-mill project only elevated by James Cagney’s top-of-the-world perf, is far better than that. In fact, it’s pretty great all ‘round, with clever story construction loaded with narrative dodges to keep you off-balance; pitch-perfect casting on all sides (especially from the gals: Virginia Mayo’s venal, unscrupulous moll, Margaret Wycherly’s vicious/suspicious ‘Ma’); and Raoul Walsh’s furiously paced helming of Ivan Goff/Ben Roberts’ smart script.* Yet, it is Cagney who makes it immortal. More unhinged & dangerous than before (thicker, too), he’s a walking wound of malevolent negative energy, flaying his own emotional triggers, then howling in pain as he waits for them to go off. (He must have been a scary presence on set.) The opening is especially fierce, as Cagney & his gang kill four while robbing a train. Giving himself up on a lesser charge as cover/alibi, and gaining a short sentence, he’s buddied up in jail by Edmund O’Brien’s undercover cop who hopes to get Cagney, and his secret backer, once they’re back outside. Simple enough set up, but oh, how Cagney, Walsh & Co. ring the changes.
DOUBLE-BILL: *When Cagney released his psychotic side one last time for the fine, if lesser known SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL/’59, he brought in HEAT’s writing duo of Goff/Roberts for a polish.