Among Warners Brothers' classic gangster movies, the post-war gem White Heat (1949) may outrank even Little Caesar, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Scarface, thanks in large part to aging James Cagney's spectacular performance as a psychopath who has such a thing for his sour, hard-bitten mother (Margaret Wycherly) that Sophocles and Freud would both have been impressed. Pursued by a dogged cop (Edmond O'Brien), Cagney's odious Cody Jarrett comes to one of the most famous ends in Hollywood history: trapped on the roof of a burning oil tank, shouting "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" just as the tank explodes. Raoul Walsh's direction is first-rate, and Max Steiner's score hits all the right notes. Cagney, then fifty, never again hit a dramatic height like this one. That's Virginia Mayo as the doomed hood's wife,Verna, who is bluntly neglected by her Mr. Wrong and much abused by her mother-in-law.
White Heat screens at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 9, in the Denver Art Museum's American Gangster Film series at Starz FilmCenter, 900 Auraria Parkway. For information, call 303-820-3456 or go to www.denverfilm.org.