When James Cagney returned to the gangster role in 1949’s “White Heat”, the film exploded off the screen, just as it still does today. As Eddie Mueller points out in “Dark City” Cody is not a classic gangster but an outlaw and that is an important difference. Arthur “Cody” Jarrett was not a victim of growing up on the poor side of town, like Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy” or a war veteran returning home to depression era high unemployment, as Eddie Bartlett did in “The Roaring Twenties.” Nor was Cody part of a criminal organization. Jarrett instead is a cruel, psychotic, homicidal, maniacal mamma’s boy, a brother to Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo, Lawrence Tierney’s Sam Wild and a father to Al Pacino’s Tony Montana along other post war psychotic criminals. Whether he shoots holes into the trunk of his car “to give some air” to fellow prison escapee Parker, who attempted to kill Jarrett in prison, or shoots Big Ed (Steve Cochran) and gleefully kicks him down the stairs telling his boys to catch, Cody is cruelly vicious and unstable. As portrayed by Cagney, he is magnetic, one of the great performances of all time; you just cannot take your eyes off him.
The film opens with Cody’s gang robbing a train setting the stage for his behavior of showing no mercy to his victims or fellow gang members. One of his men is badly burned by hot steam from the train, Days later; Cody leaves him behind when the gang has to make a getaway from their hideout. He actually, tells another member of the gang, Cotton (Wally Cassell), to kill him, “since they were close friends.” Cotton instead shoots off a few rounds into the ceiling so Cody and the others waiting outside the mountain cabin think he did kill him. He may as well of shot him because when discovered by the police, the guy had frozen to death.
Even Cody’s sultry two-timing wife Verna, (Virginia Mayo) does not escape Cody’s brutality. His treatment of his wife, who he kicks off a small bench, is reminiscent of, and as shocking as the grapefruit smashed into Mae Clarke’s face in “The Public Enemy.” When Cody concocts a plan to avoid a federal rap by pleading to a lesser State robbery with probably a two-year sentence, Verna says what is she going to do for two years waiting for him. Ma responds “the same thing you did before you married him, dearie.” Cody replies, “You better not!” the insinuation clear that Verna was walking the streets.
Of course, Cody saves his love for Ma (Margaret Wycherly). Cody cares for no one like he does for his mother who is as cold blooded and vicious as her son. Along with Norman Bates, Cody is cinema’s poster boy for the Oedipus complex. When he gets the first in a series of extreme blinding headaches, his mother takes cares of him and Cody ends up sitting in Ma’s lap. Yes, there is no love like the love of a good mother. It is Ma’s death, (unknown to Cody, Verna shot her in the back, she later convinces Cody that Big Ed murdered her) that causes Cody to go berserk in the prison mess hall and eventually plan an escape.
Cody’s downfall turns out to be a trust issue. Other than Ma, Cody never trusted anyone until he met Nick Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) who is really federal agent Vic Pardo, a plant inside the prison where he first meets Cody. Gaining Cody’s confidence, Fallon is in on the prison break and the eventually explosive ending at a chemical plant.
The ending is one of the most famous in cinema history, always included in historical and retrospective clips. Trapped, on top of a gas storage tank, his gang members are all killed, either by the police or by his own gun, Cody is wounded three times by Fallon, using a high-powered rifle. Insane, shooting wildly with his pistol, Cody screams, “Made it Ma, top of the world!” and a split second later, the world explodes into a fiery ball of white heat.
Based on a story by Virginia Kellogg and credited as being based on the true-life story of Arthur “Doc” Barker and his mother Ma Barker. Kellogg was also responsible for the story and screenplay of the early women in prison film “Caged.” The screenplay was written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts. While Cagney ignites the screen with one of the most iconic performances in film, there are some other fine performances, particularly by Virginia Mayo as Verna, beautifully slutty and low class. Director Raoul Walsh provides both Mayo and Cagney with some nice small bits of business that enhance the characterizations, for example, when we first see Verna she is sound asleep snoring. Later, she spits out some gum just before kissing Cody. When Jarrett is shooting holes in the trunk to give Parker “a little air”, he is eating a chicken wing. These fragments give us insight into both Verna and Cody, her lack of class and his indifference to killing. Steve Cochran is exceptionally menacing and rat like as Big Ed and noted Shakespearian actress Margaret Wycherley is wonderful as Cody’s equally obsessive and psycho mother. By the way, Wycherley in Howard Hawks Sgt. York portrayed Gary Cooper’s mother, one that was at the opposite end of the spectrum.
The film opened on Broadway at the colossal Strand Theater in New York, which contained over 2,700 seats, to generally rave reviews including the New York Times that stated, “the Warners have pulled all the stops in making this picture the acme of the gangster-prison film.” Times critic, Bosley Crowthers, always known for “changing” his mind, changed his opinion of the film, a week or so later, from its original rave review when conservative elements attacked the film for its innate violence. Cagney came to hate the film, as it became more and more of a classic, abhorring the crazed loser who became one of his most identifiable characterizations. While Cagney would go on to play a few more criminal types in the remaining years of his career, the role of Cody Jarrett would be the last iconic hoodlum in a long and amazing career of classic gangster/outlaw roles.
The film has taken on legendary status imitated, paid homage to in any number of works including 1980’s “Fade to Black”, “Naked Gun 33 1/3” and “Johnny Dangerously.
“White Heat” is scheduled to be broadcast on TCM Tuesday August 14th at 10PM.
This post is a revised version of an earlier article updated as an entry in the “2012 TCM Summer UnderThe Stars Blogathon” hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. The blogathon runs every day during the month of August.