At the finale of White Heat (1949) the psychotic, mother-fixated gangster Cody Jarrett is surrounded by the police atop a giant gas tank in a chemical factory. He yells defiantly: ‘Made it, Ma! Top of the world!’ And with that, is blown to kingdom come.

At 50 years old, New York City-born actor James Cagney, synonymous with the classical American gangster picture had truly made it back to the pinnacle of the industry.

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For a man who excelled playing tough guys, petty criminals and gang leaders, it is surprising to discover his route into Hollywood was via dancing and choreography. Cagney’s repertoire of villains chasing the American Dream have reverberated well beyond his own lifetime, whereas other actors have become curiosities or simply forgotten. A roll-call of once famous stars such as Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft may produce blank stares from film students and modern day audiences.

The late 1920s and early 1930s saw America in the grip of a great economic depression. Gangsters owned the streetcov-gangs and ruled the pay-packets of officials: from beat cops to the upper echelons of city administrations. It being an era of Hoovervilles, illegal booze joints, racketeering and murder, as gangs rose to prominence and sort political influence.

The golden age of the American criminal coincided with the golden age of the Hollywood gangster picture. The illustrious and short careers of Bonnie and Clyde, Baby-Face Nelson, Ma Baker, Bugsy Siegel, John Dillinger, Al Capone and Pretty-Boy Floyd entered mythology and provided American moviemaking with a rich abundance of material.

James Cagney moved from bit-part player to major Hollywood star with one film: The Public Enemy (1931). His searing portrayal of a gangster wowed audiences with its violence and frenzy.

What did Cagney bring to his gangsters and tough guys? As well as being a gifted character actor to start with, he brought a likeability and identification that added complexity to otherwise standard villainous roles. Throughout the 1930s, Cagney worked as a contract player for Warner Brothers in a variety of parts that never really strayed too far from what the producers thought the audience wanted. After contract walk-outs and work for other studios, Cagney returned to Warner Brothers in 1938 to make one of his most important films, Angels with Dirty Faces (directed by the versatile Hungarian émigré, Michael Curtiz). The film teamed him with his old friend and co-star in many-a-film, Pat O’Brien and also features an early role for screen legend Humphrey Bogart.

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A slight variant on the gangster film, Angels With Dirty Faces also operates as a social conscience picture in which two boyhood friends lead very different lives: one is a hoodlum recently out of the joint and the other, a priest trying to save the neighbourhood kids from a life of crime (a hard task since they revere Cagney’s character, Rocky Sullivan). In an emotionally charged final scene, Cagney’s character is sent to the electric chair pleading for his life.

The Roaring Twenties (1939) was to be Cagney’s last gangster film until White Heat over a decade later. Much like Angels With Dirty Faces, the theme of The Roaring Twenties is placed within a social context, one that suggest gangsters flourished due to economic necessity and not simply because they are born bad. The American gangster depicted in the studio films of the 1930s is often a character of dishonest-leanings, entrepreneurial in spirit and murders on impulse.

James Cagney with his distinct voice and mannerisms embodied for audiences a screen presence they could root for despite often playing a character of nefarious deeds and means. Another appealing factor in the popularity of Cagney was the star’s humble roots.

Gone was the ethereal and salacious glamour of the Silent period; the new stars of Hollywood were actors and actresses who did not hide their working class, immigrant backgrounds. Cagney sounded and posed so authentic as a gangster due to the salient fact he was a New Yorker from a tough neighbourhood.

He became iconic enough to be an actor whose mannerisms and speech patterns were mimicked, most often, erroneously. The oft-quoted line of dialogue: ‘You dirty rat’ is another piece of mythmaking. He never uttered such words in any of his films. Only the most famous and icon of cinema legends get misquoted repeatedly.

Over one hundred years after his birth, and seventy years since his career hey-day Cagney’s influence is felt and glimpsed today with the diminutive Joe Pesci exploding with an apoplectic temper in the films of Martin Scorsese, or Al Pacino’s swaggering turn in Scarface (1983), or as the doomed figure in Carlito’s Way (1993).

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His eccentricities were copied by Jack Nicholson most blatantly in The Shining (1980) , One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1977), and his almost full blown homage to Cagney with his portrayl of The Joker in Batman (1989). Heath Ledger too brought a sense of Cagney, especially with his sickening voice of the “Clown Prince of Crime” to the big screen with his own Oscar winning performance as The Joker in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008).

Cagney’s depiction of the gangster set the template that is adhered to and acknowledged to this day. Indeed whenever a 30′s gangster is needed for parody, it is his mannerisms and persona that is mimicked to represent a whole era of film-making. 

James Cagney, the original screen gangster: nuanced, comedic, violent and thrilling.

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This article was first posted on June 8, 2009