Raoul Walsh, 1949
Starring: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien
Cody Jarrett is the leader of a group of gangsters and suffers from intense headaches and psychotic episodes. He relies on his mother, “Ma,” and mostly ignores his spoiled, unfaithful wife, Verna. After Cody’s gang botches a train robbery, Cody cleverly turns himself in for a much more minor crime, which serves as his alibi and insures him far less jail time. While in prison, an undercover agent, Hank aka “Vic,” is put on Cody’s tail, because the D.A. is determined to catch him for the train robbery or another, new caper, and put him away for life. Cody and Vic bond, but the escape they have planned takes a new turn when Cody learns that Ma has been killed and he slips into a psychotic rage.
Based on a story by Virginia Kellogg, who also wrote the women-in-prison film Caged (1950), White Heat is rightly considered a crime film classic. James Cagney was towards the end of his career here, though he delivered one of his greatest performances as Cody, the maniacal, mother-loving psychopath. Cody was based loosely on the Barker family, two gangster brothers from the ‘30s with a famously domineering “Ma,” and on Francis Crowley. He had a shoot-out with the police and apparently said “Send my love to my mother,” just before his execution. But it is Cagney’s spirited, almost frighteningly intense portrayal that makes Cody three-dimensional, a cut above the generic toughies and gangsters flooding the market thanks to the run of film noir in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Cagney effectively crafted the charming, power hungry, unstable gangster character in The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and in The Roaring Twenties (1939), which he made with director Raoul Walsh. If any two men were suited to producing the last hurrah of the gangster film, it was certainly Cagney and Walsh. In addition to The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, he helmed another gangster-noir classic, High Sierra (1941), which starred Humphrey Bogart as a good-hearted gangster forced to go on the run.
White Heat is like a ‘30s gangster film bred with the post-war psychosis and nihilism of film noir. It contains many noir tropes, including the documentary-style cinematography influenced by German expressionism, location shooting in California, and the use of a femme fatale through Cody’s homicidal, two-timing wife Verna. But, thanks to Cagney and Walsh, Cody’s character is so unlike the standard noir anti-hero or villain. Cody is disturbingly psychotic – so much so that his performance and the constraints of the Production Code barely date the film – and his devotion to his mother is almost openly incestual. He sits on his mother’s lap and nurses from a glass of whiskey, while she lets him nibble some toast. She coddles him, but also takes part in his crimes. He goes on a rampage in the prison after learning of her death in what is surely one of the most physical and demanding performances of the ‘40s. He is responsible for the film’s few genuinely frightening moments, all of which remain a testament to his power as an actor.
There are some strong supporting performances. Obviously Margaret Wycherly (Sergeant York) is excellent as Ma and casts quite an impression over the film, even though she only has a few scenes. Virginia Mayo (The Best Years of Our Lives) is memorably sassy as Cody’s wife Verna, a woman who cares only for her own creature comforts. Edmond O’Brien (The Wild Bunch, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) nearly steals the film as Hank aka Vic, the brave undercover agent who is clearly a blueprint for later characters of a similar nature.
White Heat is available on DVD and comes highly recommended. If you’re going to see any ‘30s or ‘40s gangster film, this is at the top of the list. It was also hugely influence and it’s easy to pick out characters and scenes that would be borrowed for later films. For example, after White Heat, heist films would play a larger role in film noir with The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and others. The finale is downright apocalyptic and there isn’t much else like from the time period, with Cagney alone, at the top of the world, laughing maniacally as flames surround him.