1949 and James Cagney’s independent movie production company wasn’t faring so well. Warner Brothers came calling, and he agreed to let them help produce and distribute a movie that they had the rights for and wanted him to star in, White Heat, a film noir and one of my favorites of this kind of film: gangsters, criminals, cops, untrustworthy women, and justice for all at the end.
Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a criminal leader of a gang. Cody is married to Verna( Virginia Mayo), his gorgeous and younger wife. Also in Cody’s life is his Ma( Margaret Wycherly). She is the most important person in Cody’s life, the one woman he always turns to when he has problems as she can usually come up with good solutions. She is fully supportive of her son’s criminal ways, and when he is hit with those terrible headaches, only Ma can help him through them.
Cody and his gang, living in California, rob a train, killing the engineer and 3 other railroad employees. The police eventually close in and track Cody and his gang. Cody wounds Philip Evans(John Archer) a US Treasury agent on the chase to bring down Cody Jarrett. Cody is tricky and smart, despite his ruthless ways and his psychotic antics, and he knows that an acquaintance has committed a robbery in Chicago the same day as the train robbery in California. Cody is able to use the robbery in Chicago as his alibi, claiming he did that crime. He pleads guilty to that crime and gets 1-3 years in an Illinois state prison. Evans knows Cody is lying, so he sends in federal agent Hank Fallon(Edmund O’Brien) to pretend to be a criminal newly arriving at the prison and to be Cody’s cellmate. Fallon is to try and find out who the “fence” is on the outside, who is Cody sending money to for Ma and Verna and the gang.
Meanwhile, Verna is tolerating Ma, barely, and spending time with Big Ed(Steve Cochran), one of Cody’s gang members. Big Ed tells Verna that he will one day run the gang and to do that, he has someone on the inside at that Illinois prison who will kill Cody for them. Then they can be together, and get rid of Ma, too. Unfortunately Big Ed’s plan goes awry, and Fallon sees Cody about to be killed by a prison workplace “accident” and saves Cody in the nick of time!
This film has several memorable scenes and in the prison is one of the best: Cody’s complete psychotic breakdown when he gets the news that Ma has died. Cagney didn’t tell the actors in the scene that his big breakdown was coming and the look on Edmund O’Brien’s face is priceless-he is truly shocked and astounded at Cagney’s going berserk in the prison cafeteria.
After Cody is hauled off to the prison’s infirmary because of his breakdown, he sneakily manages a prison breakout, taking Fallon with him. Cody utterly trusts Fallon, not knowing that Fallon is really a federal agent with the US Treasury Department. Big Ed learns that Cody is alive and has broken out of jail, and he is very afraid as is Verna. They try to plan what to do if and when Cody reappears. It is a great scene when Cody does reappear and confronts Verna, who lies to him about Ma’s death. Big Ed gets his ultimate reward from Cody and then it is off to the next caper, robbing the payroll of a petroleum plant in Long Beach, California.
Cody gets a criminal pal to steal a tanker truck that picks up products from the petroleum plant. He tells the gang that they will all hide in the truck, like a Trojan Horse, and be driven into the plant. From there, they’ll rob the payroll office, and escape in the truck. Fallon manages to get a message to Evans and a police ambush is set up at the plant, awaiting Cody and the gang’s arrival. But darn the luck, the driver of the truck recognizes Fallon as an agent who arrested him several years ago!
Fallon manages to escape to the cop side of the oncoming battle at the petroleum plant and Verna is immediately arrested. It is now down to a shootout with Cody and his remaining gang members. The last scene is memorable and Cody’s final line, “Made it Ma! Top of the World!”, is a tribute to great screenwriting, direction, cinematography, special effects, and acting.
I just can’t praise this movie enough. Yes, some of the characters are horrible people, and you are glad when they get punished. The acting is so good in this film, and James Cagney is just magnificent as Cody, an evil criminal with a deep love for his Ma, and those terrible headaches!
White Heat was directed by Raoul Walsh, one of Hollywood’s best, and the screenplay was written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts. The story came from Virginia Kellogg. Max Steiner created the fantastic music that accompanies the action on the screen. Kellogg, Goff, and Roberts were nominated for Best Screenplay at the 1950 Academy Awards. In 2003, White Heat was admitted to the National Film Registry and it is in the top 100 of one of those AFI lists.
White Heat isn’t available on Netflix, but is available to buy or watch instantly on Amazon. Tuesday, May 21, at 11:45 a.m. (CST) it will be shown on Turner Classic Movies, so set that dvr!