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, Amazon.com