• White Heat

The latest film in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s ongoing “Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S.” series is Blonde Crazy, a 1931 pre-Code comedy directed by Roy Del Ruth and starring James Cagney that comes recommended by J.R. Jones. Cagney appeared in Blonde Crazy shortly before his famous turn in The Public Enemy, the film that essentially kick-started his reputation for playing wild, petulant gangster figures. But if the Del Ruth film had been a bigger hit, it’s possible the actor could have taken more comedic roles during his career. With one of the most distinctive and flexible faces in cinema history, Cagney excelled in his gangster roles, communicating his characters’ inner turmoil with his narrowed brow, thin lips, and wild eyes. Such a skill set is equally required in comedy, where wild expressiveness and over-the-top emotion are tenets of the genre. Indeed, his most rowdy and blistering performances are often just a hair away from being anarchically comic, something his diminutive physical frame had a lot to do with. He was a versatile performer with considerable range, able to elevate subpar material via his presence alone. (He single-handedly makes Nicholas Ray’s Run for Cover and Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, a pair of would-be disasters, watchable.) You can see my five favorite Cagney performances below.

5. Angels With Dirty Faces (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1938) Cagney won his Academy Award for his role in Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, but I much prefer his imposing turn in this crime drama, if only for his gripping onscreen dealings with Pat O’Brien, a similarly commanding performer who never quite reached Cagney’s level.

4. One, Two, Three (dir. Billy Wilder, 1961) A great late-period role. As I mentioned above, Cagney wasn’t known for his comedic work, but he excels in this satire, playing a dutiful Coca-Cola employee reluctantly rubbing elbows with Communist Germans. The film shows Cagney was a far more naturalistic actor than his busy, berserk performances suggest.

3. The Crowd Roars (dir. Howard Hawks, 1932) Howard Hawks specialized, among many things, in bringing out the best in his stars’ onscreen (and occasionally offscreen) personalities, and that goes double for Cagney, who appeared in two of the director’s films. Here, in this pre-Code melodramatic actioner, he plays a heroic race-car driver, and in only his ninth screen role, the actor exudes the kind of presence and vulnerability performers with three times his experience couldn’t match.

2. Blood on the Sun (dir. Frank Lloyd, 1945) The second film financed by the actor’s own production company, this spy drama is itself fairly suspect in its dealings with the history of Japanese militarism and the steady build to Pearl Harbor, but Cagney is in rare form, given free reign by director Frank Lloyd. As such, the film is tough, explosive, and brazenly melodramatic, and it owes much if not all of its success to Cagney, who was so impassioned by the project that he insisted on doing his own stunts, including some surprisingly physical judo fight scenes.

1. White Heat (dir. Raoul Walsh, 1949) I realize it’s the obvious choice, but Cagney’s most famous role is also his best, the perfect encapsulation of what made him iconic and a fascinating example of an actor and film in complete sync. As Dave Kehr put it in his capsule, “Raoul Walsh’s heroes had a knack for going too far, but none went further than James Cagney.” Simultaneously mental, hyperactive, sympathetic, detestable, and bizarrely heroic, his character, the crook Cody Jarrett, is, to once again quote Kehr, pure id. The actor’s manic commitment lends to the film’s famous breakneck atmosphere, so much that it’s impossible to imagine anybody else in the role.