Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949) is an exuberant epitaph to the classic gangster movie; the last hurrah of James Cagney’s screen reprobates that had been his, and Warner Bros., bread and butter throughout the 1930s and early 40s, before the actor moved into character parts for the rest of his career. By the mid-1940s Cagney had segued from playing thugs. He had even won his one and only Oscar portraying Broadway’s James M. Cohan in the patriotic musical, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Yet the grime of this subgenre still clung to Cagney’s on-screen persona; even if it had been blunted by the mid-1930s with Hollywood’s self-governing board of censorship that absolutely forbade any explicit glorification of the mob lifestyle. Nevertheless, WB, the studio that had made an art form out of these ‘ripped from the headlines’ stories of gritty realism had found creative ways to sidestep the Breen office. Even so, the proof of Cagney’s enduring legacy as a ruthless Mafioso has been ensconced in the minds of movie lovers everywhere, the emblematic line “You dirty rat…” endlessly lampooned and parodied when the actor’s iconography is invoked by comedians and impersonators alike.
By the late 1930s the gangster movie had gradually morphed into something else entirely: the ‘crime doesn’t pay’ noir/detective melodrama with its focus shifting to lawmen responsible for apprehending the bad guys, but also with a decidedly psychological underpinning – almost an apology or explanation to illustrate for the audience why the criminal element was as it appeared. As the decade wore on the mugs, thugs and their molls were downgraded even further as figures of fun in movies like A Slight Case of Murder (1938) and Brother Orchid (1940); entertaining, but a far cry from the diabolical loose cannons depicted in The Public Enemy and Little Caesar (both made in 1931).
In many ways White Heat is a retrofitted gangster movie; reintroducing the time-honored clichés and conventions while ever so slightly tweaking the formula to reflect changes in the Production Code and keep the censors happy. James Cagney reprises the role of an unrepentant and enterprising gangland thug, though perhaps nowhere more astutely than with his Cody Jarrett, an imploding and very tortured psychotic. In as much as it is virtually impossible to work up even a modicum of pity for this impenitent killer whose only real pleasure is derived from eluding the law, by virtue of his own screen presence, James Cagney makes it incredibly hard for us to entirely discount Cody Jarrett as nothing more - or even better - than a lunatic with a gat in his hand.
It’s not sympathy that Cagney’ criminal is after but a sort of waning respect – perhaps a commodity his middle-aged self has suddenly begun to realize he will never possess despite his daring anti-heroic deeds. Cody Jarrett might have envisioned himself a Tom Power – the ultra-violent and slightly sexy incarnation Cagney had created in The Public Enemy – only he isn’t a young man anymore, but a slightly paunchy and very angry elder statesman past his physical prime, with deeper psychological issues lurking beneath his beady-eyed glower. Infrequently, Cody’s fractured sanity gets the better of him. He suffers crippling bouts of some sort of epilepsy that liquidate his usual confidence into a whimpering mass of contradictions plagued by primal doubts and mounting insecurities; perhaps, that his once undisputed mystique as an underworld figure has been eroded away.
The middle third of White Heat is a departure from the classic gangster movie; belonging almost exclusively to a prolonged ‘G-man’ scenario owing to the aforementioned ‘crime doesn’t pay’ edict, as Hank Fallon – a.k.a. Vic Pardo (Edmund O’Brien) – an undercover planted in Cody’s prison cell – feverishly works to ‘befriend’ him so he can gain Cody’s confidence and a confession that will send him to the gas chamber. Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts screenplay deftly butts the conventions of the gangster genre against those belonging to the more streamlined ‘police procedural’ crime story. The two narratives run a parallel course for the bulk of the movie – book-ended by escapist flights back into the looming darkness of a more undiluted homage to the classic gangster yarn.
We begin our excursion with the beginning of the end. Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) and his gang stage a daring train robbery, murdering the conductor and three others in cold blood before making off with a mint. Cody shoots the train’s engineer, causing his hand to slip on the brake. A powerful blast of piping hot steam sears Cody’s accomplice, Zuckie (Ford Rainey) who is helped into the getaway car by fellow accomplices, Big Ed Somers (Steve Cochran) and Cotton Vallenti (Wally Cassell). Hold up in an isolated cottage with his young wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo) and scheming matriarch, Ma (Margaret Wycherly), Cody superficially promises Cotton that he will get Zuckie the medical attention he needs for his burns. Actually, Cody has no intention of sending Zuckie to the hospital. To do so would incriminate them all in the daring heist. After admonishing Big Ed for the way he seems to be flirting with Verna, Cody suffers one of his debilitating ‘headaches’ and rushes into the next room clutching his head. He is attended to by Ma – a diabolical and sycophantic influence who gives her son a shot of whiskey to steady his nerves, exclaiming, ‘top of the world’ – a phrase that will have acquired a more ominous distinction by the end of the story.
Verna is a schemer. It’s also suggested that she used to be a working girl before Cody made an honest woman of her. But this veneer is thin at best. Verna would prefer a life of diamonds and sables, of parties and getaways. More recently, she has steadily begun to realize that Cody isn’t the man who’ll be able to give her what she wants. But she can’t just leave. Nobody ever walks out on Cody Jarrett. So instead she continued to play the part of his dutiful gal Friday who can satisfy the one impetuous urge mama cannot, even as she continues to cast her net for her husband’s ambitious right-hand man, Ed.
A sudden storm provides the perfect cover for Cody and his men to make a break from the cabin; only Cody has already decided to leave Zuckie behind. He is encouraged by Ma to go one better and put a definite period to Zuckie suffering with a bullet. Instead, Cody passes off the responsibility to Cotton, who outwardly agrees; then sneaks back into the cabin, firing two shots into the ceiling instead – telling Zuckie that, if at all possible, he will send help back. Regrettably, by the time help arrives Zuckie has died of his first degree burns.
The narrative shifts to the Tahoe County Morgue where US Treasury investigator Philip Evans (John Archer) has already deduced that the dead man was a part of Cody’s mob. Through some clever police work Evans tails Ma from the local market back to the Milbanke Motel – a quiet little nothing on the highway where Cody and Verna are already feverishly packing for the next length of their escape. Evans confronts Cody in the parking lot and is wounded in the arm. Cody, Ma and Verna drive off. But even Cody realizes he cannot outrun the law. So he comes up with an even more brilliant plan. He will confess to a robbery of the Palace Hotel – a lesser crime occurring at approximately the same time as the train robbery; thereby giving him the perfect alibi. The maximum sentence for this heist is only one to three years. The courts accept Cody’s guilty plea. But Evans is no fool. He wants Cody to fry for the train robbery and murders.
So he plants undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien) in Jarrett’s prison cell. Fallon has spent his career coercing confessions from convicted men on the inside, playing a con named Vic Pardo. Fallon’s other central purpose is to learn the true identity of Cody’s ‘Trader’ – Winston (Fred Clark); the fence who’s been laundering his stolen money. For Big Ed, Cody’s incarceration presents the perfect opportunity to muscle in on his lifestyle and Verna while doing away with his former boss. Ed pays a fellow convict, Roy Parker (Paul Guilfoyle) to drop a heavy piece of machinery in the prison’s workshop on Cody. But the plot goes awry when Pardo sees what’s about to happen and pushes Cody out of the way, thereby saving his life. Cody is grateful to Pardo but still not entirely willing to befriend him as a confidant. He’s sure of only one thing. That Big Ed must die. So, on visiting day Cody confides to Ma his suspicions. She concurs and promises to ‘take care’ of Big Ed herself in short order.
Regrettably, life on the inside isn’t what Cody imagined. Before long he begins to be plagued with crippling self-doubt and worry. Cody’s world all but implodes when word leaks from the outside that Ma has died – or perhaps has been killed by Ed – sending Cody into a mental tailspin. He loses it in the mess hall and tears the place apart, but is eventually subdued by guards and carried off to the infirmary where prison doctors diagnose him with psychosis – the same condition that led to his late father’s lifelong commitment to an asylum. Pardo pleads with Cody not to do this crazy thing. In fact, Pardo has begun to develop a curious empathy for Cody. He can see that the man is hardly responsible for his own actions but rather dictated to by some terrible internal derangement that has taken control of him. Still, it’s no use. Cody wants out. He takes hostages, cellmates Pardo and Parker, the latter whom he locks in the trunk of their getaway car and later cold-bloodedly murders for the near fatal machine shop incident on his life.
Meanwhile Big Ed has learned of Cody’s escape and is nervously awaiting his return. Realizing that she is in between the proverbial rock and hard place, Verna makes a desperate attempt to slip away. She is apprehended by Cody, but lies to him that Ed murdered Ma. In fact, Verna was the one who shot Ma in the back. The gang reunites and welcomes the new escapees into the fold including Pardo whom Cody is insistent will share in the proceeds from the train robbery for helping him escape. Cody dispatches with Ed in short order. But Pardo is amazed when he is taken even further in Cody’s confidence, introduced to Winston – the fence he has been looking for all along.
The story now shifts to its climactic showdown. To forever secure his good fortune Cody has concocted a scheme to make off with the payroll from a Long Beach chemical plant, using a tanker as the gang’s Trojan horse. Realizing that Cody and his boys will likely disappear after the heist, Pardo sneaks off to get a message to Evans. Regrettably, the tanker’s driver, Creel (Ian MacDonald) instantly recognizes Pardo as Fallon; the informant who set him up. Faced with the truth, Cody takes Pardo as his hostage to the chemical plant – perhaps intent on killing him once the robbery is complete. Instead, Evans and the police arrive on the scene, firing tear gas into the gang who frantically disperse and are thereafter shot dead by the police in short order. Cody makes a break, fleeing to the top of a bulbous gasoline storage tank. He will never be taken alive. Thus when Fallon shoots Cody with his rifle, the maniacal madman points his gun at the storage tank beneath his feet instead, defiantly shouting “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” The tank and several nearby ignite from the sparks into a hellish and all-consuming fireball as Evans and Fallon look on in disbelief.
White Heat is justly famous for this penultimate moment of defiance and retribution; in retrospect a fond farewell to the gangster genre in totem. Cagney is superb as the self-destructive hood who would rather burn to a crisp than face the consequences of his actions like a man. Until this moment Cagney’s Cody Jarrett had been just another mindless, cold-hearted, gun-toting cutthroat looking for his next big fix. But with this decision to destroy the only person he ever truly loved – himself – his apprenticeship from common goon to iconic brute is complete.
Cody Jarrett comes from a long line of emblematic criminals who have graced the gangster subgenre with their bizarre mother fixations. Herein, Raoul Walsh has taken a page straight from the Alfred Hitchcock playbook. Hitchcock never portrays a middle-aged woman as anything but an absolute gargoyle, and in Margaret Wycherly’s Ma Jarrett, Walsh has evoked just such a demigod in petticoats. Wycherly’s matriarch is an aider and abettor to Cody’s self-destruction. She reinforces his confidence even though she recognizes just how much he is his father’s son. Under Ma’s seemingly tender and guiding hand the element of madness taunting Cody Jarrett is allowed to proliferate; infrequently tempered – perhaps, even controlled and/or managed by this wicked puppet master. Deliberately or otherwise, it is Ma who proves to be Cody’s downfall. She inadvertently brings the law to his front door at the Milbanke Motel. It is in her promise to rid Cody of Big Ed that Cody begins his gradual spiril into unhinged frustrations. Ma’s own demise – at Verna’s hands - touches off the penultimate powder keg of rage within her son that will eventually ruin Cody’s chances to finish out his prison stay so that he can wreak havoc on society once more.
Edmund O’Brien provides good solid support, as do Steve Cochran and particularly Virginia Mayo; an actress who began her career playing wide-eyed innocents in movies like Wonder Man (1945) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), though arguably achieved her most enduring success when cast as vial gold diggers with hidden agendas; as herein or in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). In the final analysis White Heat sears itself into our collective consciousness because of Cagney’s blistering central performance. The film would be nothing at all without his intoxicating star turn, proving that - even past his own physical prime - nobody was better at playing the common hood than James Cagney.
White Heat arrives on Blu-ray in a much improved 1080p dual-layered transfer. The B&W image sharpens up considerably over its DVD counterpart and film grain is refined into a layer of texture previously unseen on home video. The image is noticeably darker. Contrast is solid. Age related artifacts have been tempered but are still present. Several inserts still appear to have been sourced from less than perfect first generation elements or original camera negatives, but this is the very best White Heat has ever looked on home video. The audio is DTS mono and adequate. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD, including an audio commentary, brief featurette, vintage shorts and theatrical trailer. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)