Director: Raoul Walsh; Screenplay: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, based on story by Virginia Kellogg; Cinematography: Sidney Hickox; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producer: Louis F. Edelman; Music: Max Steiner
Cast: James Cagney (Cody Jarrett), Virginia Mayo (Verna Jarrett), Margaret Wycherly (Ma Jarrett), Edmond O’Brien (Vic Pardo/Hank Fallon), Steve Cochran (Big Ed Somers), John Archer (Philip Evans)
- "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!"
After chronicling three superlative performances by James Cagney through many of his gangster roles of the 1930s and 40s, I can’t believe I am about to say this, but this role might be his best. It is an entirely different beast from the other characters that he had previously played. Rocky Sullivan and Eddie Bartlett were at least moderately sympathetic, continually displaying goodhearted qualities in between their illicit activities. Even Tom Powers, vicious as he could be, found redemption before his kidnapping at the end of The Public Enemy. There are no such redeemable qualities in Cody Jarrett. He is an unequivocal sociopath, as ferocious as any character ever committed to celluloid up to that point in time. Cody never even pretends to seek redemption.
In White Heat, Cagney is reunited with director Raoul Walsh, a duo with a proven track record. But this is a different film from their previous effort, The Roaring Twenties, and not just because of the sadistic character played by Cagney. Most critics and observers refer to White Heat as the final chapter of the classic Warner Brothers gangster films. I contend (as I did in my earlier review of The Roaring Twenties), that this is not entirely accurate and that White Heat has actually moved into a different area of the crime drama. The Roaring Twenties contains all of the archetypal elements of the “classic” gangster film – big-city racketeers, syndicates, gang wars. White Heat, in contrast, has none of these. Cody Jarrett and his partners operate as a band of outlaws, actually more similar to the gangs of Jesse James and other western renegades than to Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.
This is not at all a criticism. I just think it’s necessary to recognize that this film, released in 1949, bears a closer resemblance to film noir than to previous gangster efforts. Obviously, these two genres are not mutually exclusive, and ultimately it’s an argument of semantics. But it's an interesting issue to ponder, especially because White Heat’s place in the gangster cycle is unquestioned and oftentimes overshadows the great effort that was The Roaring Twenties. Looking at White Heat from a slightly different vantage point allows both films to shine for their own unique reasons.
The fact that Raoul Walsh is directing means that the action sequences of the film are top quality. The first scenes of the film are spectacular. It opens with sweeping shots of rural California, with plumes of smoke shooting into the air from a locomotive as it weaves its way through the mountains. Simultaneously, Cody and his men are moving into position to hijack the train. As the inside men on board overtake workers, Cody and henchman position themselves on the tracks. Once the engineer unwittingly begins to bring the train to a stop precisely where the gang wants them, the stunning scene of Cody Jarrett leaping from an overpass onto the moving train commences the robbery. This is not the most celebrated scene in the film (I’ll let you guess which one that would be), but it is arguably the most visually appealing. The team makes off with $300,000 of federal money, but it is not a perfect job. Gang member Zuckie (Ford Rainey) is severely burned by steam from the engine, and his health steadily declines as the gang holes up in the California mountains to avoid law enforcement.
While hiding in the mountains, the principal characters are introduced and the personalities that will contribute to the conflict throughout the film are on full display. We meet Cody’s wife Verna (Virginia Mayo), a beautiful woman who loathes the lack of luxuries involved with life on the run. The various gang members are introduced, most notably Big Ed (Steve Cochran), a powerfully built underling who seems to have aspirations for control of the gang. Cody clearly has suspicions of this ambition, as well as the notion that Big Ed is trying to cozy up to Verna. Whenever the two come into close contact with each other – even for something innocuous as Verna pouring Big Ed a cup of coffee – Cody erupts in anger. Finally, and most importantly, is Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly), the singular influence on the attitudes and actions of Cody. The elderly Ma distrusts everyone in the cabin other than her son, Verna included, and never hesitates to counsel caution and violence to keep Cody safe. Just witness her recommendation to Cody that they should not leave the injured Zuckie in the cabin to be found by police after the rest of the gang moves on. Her solution? Get rid of him. After all, he might talk.
It is in the cabin that another layer is added to the Cody Jarrett character, as he experiences a crippling headache that has him falling to the floor and grimacing in pain. Ma ushers him into a side bedroom so that the rest of the gang does not see him in such a helpless state. Cody is calmed by his mother and collects himself by sitting on his mother’s lap. This scene highlights the intriguing bond between mother and son, introducing something of an Oedipus dynamic to the relationship. Later in the film, when federal agents are discussing Cody, one remarks that as a child Cody would fake headaches in order to get his mother’s attention away from the rest of the family. But as he grew older, the imagined headaches became very real and reached the debilitating level that is witnessed in the cabin. Treasury Agent Philip Evans (John Archer) declares that “Any minute he’s apt to crack open at the seams.”
The opening train robbery essentially sets the stage for everything else that happens. After the gang leaves the mountains, they split up and continue to evade law enforcement. When the authorities finally catch up to Cody, he admits to pulling off a payroll robbery in a completely different state. By doing this, he hopes to receive less prison time than he would for the train robbery and the murder of one of the railroad men in the process. The Treasury agents on the train robbery case see through the ruse, but allow Cody to believe that he has outwitted them. Instead, the federal agents ensure that Cody’s story is accepted and that he is sent to prison in Illinois. Their plan is to install an undercover agent, Hank Fallon masquerading as inmate Vic Pardo (Edmond O’Brien), as Cody’s cellmate in Springfield and attempt to uncover where the $300,000 from the train robbery is stashed.
Jarrett befriends Pardo and the two hatch an escape plan, which Fallon reports to the authorities. However, events in the outside world complicate things. Jarrett had earlier learned from Ma that Verna and Big Ed had run off together. Over Cody’s objections, Ma declares that she will find the couple and personally take care of Big Ed. On the planned day of his breakout, Cody learns that his Ma is dead, and he goes ballistic. Despite being held in a straightjacket after the eruption, Cody still manages to proceed with an escape. But it does not follow the plan that Fallon had outlined to federal agents, and thus the group of inmates are successful. Once out of jail, Cody immediately sets out to find Verna and Big Ed. When he finally does, he learns that Big Ed is the murderer of his beloved Ma. Verna manages to convince him that she had nothing to do with the murder, but Big Ed is not so fortunate. After dispatching Big Ed and seizing back control of his gang – which now includes an undercover agent – Cody proceeds to plan a daring payroll robbery. The plan he constructs is his version of the legend of the Trojan Horse. The thieves will hide in an oil tanker and will be let into the oil refinery without any problems.
The robbery, predictably, does not go as planned. When Cody and his men enter the refinery, they are quickly surrounded by law enforcement. True to his reputation, Cody refuses to surrender and continues fighting as he sees his partners shot down. Retreating to the top of a large tank of gas, Cody decides to make a stand. This final scene is without question the most celebrated in the entire film. It is as good (and explosive) as advertised, further reinforcing Walsh’s skill in creating tense action sequences. The entire oil refinery robbery is well-structured. Walsh does a great job of creating tension, by keeping the audience guessing as to how Vic Pardo is going to manage to alert authorities and keep himself from being discovered as a mole. It is a hard-charging final fifteen minutes to close the film, and the conclusion ranks among the most legendary in Hollywood history. As great as the conclusions to the other three films in this Cagney series are (with Angles With Dirty Faces being my personal favorite), this is the finish that is most likely to pop up in “greatest movie endings” lists.
While Rocky Sullivan is my personal favorite Cagney role, Cody Jarrett may very well be his most memorable. It is a character that sticks with you long after the film has ended. There were certainly evil characters before, but none seem to revel in the sadism as Cody does. It serves to create a very interesting perspective for the viewer. Who is the protagonist in the film? Who is the audience to root for in the contest between the criminals and the federal agents? Other Cagney films present an obvious answer, as even though the lead characters were admitted criminals and gangsters, they were shown to have at least some admirable qualities. This is not the case in White Heat. Outside of love for his mother, Cody possesses none of these. It is quite a feat that Walsh and Cagney are able to make the film work without a true hero for the audience to identify with. Cagney’s performance is so thrilling, that even if you aren’t rooting for Cody to succeed, you’re at the very least fascinated to see how far that he will make it.
Margaret Wycherly turns in an equally chilling performance. She makes Ma Jarrett nearly as vicious as Cody. The relationship between mother and son truly is bizarre. Sometimes it feels a bit over the top, such as the explaining of how the headaches were developed in childhood, but it’s unlike anything else that I’ve ever seen in crime films of the era.
I’ve made the bold statement that this may be Cagney’s best performance, but you’ll notice that I’ve been careful not to claim this to be his best film. While this is probably the most critically acclaimed of the four films I’ve reviewed in this series, I don't feel that it’s his best. As entertaining as it is, and as great as individual performances are, the story itself is not as compelling for me as in the other films. The reason may be that in the other classic films, there were equal foils to Cagney characters, creating a tension that added greatly to the story. Pat O’Brien in Angels With Dirty Faces and Humphrey Bogart in The Roaring Twenties were able to rise to Cagney’s level. In White Heat, it is Cagney almost single-handedly carrying the show. He is more than up to the task, and while I wouldn’t rank it above the two previously mentioned films, it is still one that is influential and a major part of Hollywood history. I watch it regularly and Cagney’s performance never loses any of its edge.
- NOTE: Aside from comments just on White Heat, feel free to discuss how you would rank the four Cagney films I've reviewed... I'd be interested to hear how everybody feels they stack up against each other.