Although he considered it just another throw-away gangster movie, James Cagney put everything he’d learned about acting into his performance in “White Heat.” If you’ve ever seen anything else like it in an American film, you must have been watching a movie made after 1949. “White Heat” is a black comedy for the ages.
By the time he made “White Heat,” James Cagney (1899-1986) was fifty years old and was sicker than ever of gangster and tough guy roles. He’d begged his home studio, Warner Brothers, for a greater variety of characters to play (they gave him a few—Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” zany screenwriter Robert Law in “Boy Meets Girl,” and hoofer Chester Kent in “Footlight Parade), but he’d washed his hands of Warners and walked away from his contract twice, the latest time being in 1943.
Working as an independent producer, he made four films between ’43 and ’48. None of them are spectacular, but three of them are worth watching. Avoid “The Time of Your Life.” It won’t be.
So by 1949, Cagney was back at Warners with a new contract in hand and a commitment to make yet another gangster movie.He liked to hang out with the writers and the story is that he dropped by the office of scripters Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, stretched out on the couch and asked, “Okay fellas, what’s it gonna be this time?”
Goff and Roberts, working from an original screen story by Virginia Kellogg and borrowing mobster lore from the careers of Ma Barker and her brood, fashioned Cody Jarrett, easily the most brutal gang leader in Cagney’s repertoire since Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy” (1931). And Cagney, thinking that the entire enterprise was nothing but a pumped up “B” movie, added some touches of his own to the character. The result is the most stunning performance of Cagney’s career and a screen villain that still has the power to make jaws drop open over 50 years later.
Note: There are spoilers galore from this point on.
The opening sequence gives us the Jarrett gang holding up a train. Cody is not a big city gangster, but an outlaw of the open road. Criminal gangs had moved to the Heartland during the Depression. Think John Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde. During the robbery, a member of the gang slips up and calls Cody by name, necessitating the cold blooded murder of the engineer and fireman. No time is wasted in letting us know that Jarrett is no decent guy forced into a life of crime, a la Eddie Bartlett in “The Roaring Twenties.” Jarrett has “thug” written all over him.
Cody travels with his “Ma” (Margaret Wycherly) and his wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo). Big Ed (Steve Cochran) is the most vocal member of the gang and the only one Ma and Cody suspect wants to take over—and that includes taking over with Verna.
To avoid going to prison on the train robbery and murder raps, Cody confesses to a hotel robbery in another state that occurred at the same time as the train caper went down. The authorities know he’s guilty of the more serious offenses, but they can’t prove anything.
Hoping that Jarrett will let some self-incriminating word slip, they plant an undercover agent named Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) in his cell. Fallon insinuates himself into Cody’s good graces, and when Jarrett breaks out he takes the spy with him.
On the outside, Big Ed has killed Ma Jarrett and taken up with Verna. Cody returns to settle the score and during the climactic robbery of an oil refinery Fallon is recognized by a hood he once arrested. In a fruitless bid to escape, Cody climbs a gasoline storage tank. As flames shoot up around him, Cody, wounded and hopelessly insane, shouts the Jarrett family motto to the ghost of his mother, “Made it, Ma. Top of the world!”
I know. Just looking at the plot synopsis it’s hard to see just how different the character of Cody Jarrett is from Cagney’s earlier mobsters. He’s more savage, and we get the feeling that even if he were not involved in crime, he’d still be a sadistic brute.
The surprises on screen come from a post-war atmosphere of despair—“White Heat” isn’t purely film noir but it’s frequently cited with films noir—from Cagney’s disgust at being given what he saw as the same old same old, and from director Raoul Walsh’s willingness to go along with his star’s crazy ideas for character development.
Cagney decided that if Jarrett was supposed to be crazy, by God, let’s make him crazy. He snarls, he growls, he pounds his forehead with his palms as he drops down with debilitating headaches. (To gain Ma’s attention when he was young, he pretended to have skull-splitting migraines, and as an adult the fantasy has become real.)
One of the film’s four unforgettable moments comes with the first headache. Out of reach of the law in a mountain hideout, Cody’s head begins to throb. He goes into the bedroom so the rest of the gang won’t see him in his weakened condition (Ma’s suggestion). As the pain recedes, Jarrett sits on Ma’s lap as she rests in a rocking chair. It’s momentarily difficult for the audience to accept what it’s seeing. A 50-year old man, beginning to grow stout, sitting on his mother’s lap with his arm around her shoulders. What’s the reaction? Do you wince at the infantile pitifulness of the character or celebrate at the audacity of the actor?
Cagney later wrote that he didn’t tell Margaret Wycherly what he intended to do. Cinematographer Sid Hickox knew, as did Walsh, who approved. I don’t know what audiences in 1949 thought they were seeing, but I think it was a definite step on the road to Norman Bates.
Another of the great moments comes in the prison mess hall when Cody first learns that Ma Jarrett is dead. Again, Cagney didn’t tell anyone but Walsh what he intended to do. He just asked that the biggest extras be dressed as prison guards and situated at the end of the dining table. Then, on having the bad news whispered in his ear, Cody emits an agonized, feral wail. He grabs the shirts of the men near him. He crawls up on the table and rushes toward the guards, kicking plates and bowels onto the floor. He leaps onto the guards and begins thrashing around like a starving coyote in a hen house. They carry him out of the room as he howls, “I gotta get outa here!” over and over again.
Sometimes when I watch this scene, I laugh. Sometimes I’m scared shitless.
My favorite Cagney moment comes after the prison break when the gang is leaving its hideout. A prison rat who tried to kill Cody at Big Ed’s behest has been brought along in the trunk of Jarrett’s car. The script called for Cody to shoot the man through the trunk lid, but that wasn’t macabre enough for the star.On the day the scene was shot, Cagney had seen one of the crew members gnoshing some fried chicken for lunch. Cagney asked the man if he had a drumstick and, if so, could he have it. The fella was willing to oblige one of the nicest and most decent actors in the business, so Cagney got his drumstick. He saved it for the cameras and is seen nonchalantly gnawing away on the meat as he blasts a man’s life away.
The final scene, with Jarrett atop the gasoline storage tank, is the film’s most celebrated. It’s the culmination of the lead character’s rampaging insanity. There’s hardly anything human left in Cody Jarrett as he laughs hysterically and rushes doom so he can be with Ma once again.But behind Cagney’s last bravura moment in the picture is Walsh’s genius in setting the scene on top of the tank—one that is round, like a globe. A murderous madman stands “on top of the world” as it is engulfed in an inferno of apocalyptic proportions. The atomic bomb imagery couldn’t have been lost on the post-war audience.
Do I sound like a fan of “White Heat”? Uh, yeah. It’s my favorite film and I never tire of it. Cagney’s performance provides the greatest delight for me. I know I haven’t mentioned those of any of the rest of the cast, and I don’t mean to disparage them, but if they are solid and believable, that of the star is astonishing. If you want to see a brilliant example of what can happen when script, direction and acting merge perfectly, this is it, Ma. Top of the world!