White Heat is one of James Cagney’s finest films and when I first saw it I was so blown away that I had to watch it again. It was the movie that really turned me into a serious Cagney fan (though I always liked him in Yankee Doodle Dandy and Love Me or Leave Me). Violent, brutal, psychotic, cunning and too-trusting, with serious mommy issues, Cagney’s Cody Jarrett is a frightening and yet surprisingly vulnerable gangster. The vulnerability doesn’t make him more likable, but it does make him a human being and not just a killing machine.
Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) and his gang – which includes his overpowering and devoted mother, Ma (Margaret Wycherly), his cheap, bombshell wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo), and Big Ed (Steve Cochran), who would love nothing better than to replace Cody – have just held up a train and are now hiding out. The police are hot on their trail and to derail suspicion, Cody decides to confess to another crime he didn’t commit (he knows the guy who did commit it), which would show he couldn’t possibly have held up the train. The idea is that he’ll only get a few years and emerge again to enjoy the spoils of criminality.
But once he’s in prison, Big Ed makes his move. Verna, who can hardly compete with Cody’s mother for Cody’s attention (so greatly does Ma Jarrett dominate his life), is quite willing to switch from Cody to Big Ed. Meanwhile, the police know Cody is in for the wrong crime and plant a policemen in jail to get close to Cody. His name is Hank Fallon (Edmund O’Brien) and his job is working in prisons to worm out secrets from the inmates. The police figure that without the strong and steadying influence of Ma, Jarrett will need someone to lean on and they are hoping it will be Fallon. But it’s a race against time. There is insanity in the Jarrett family, Cody’s father ended in an asylum and the police know Cody is beginning to crack up. They want to find out who the fence is who takes care of all the hot money that Cody steals.
Spoilers! When Ma Jarrett is killed, Cody goes completely psycho and breaks out of jail, bringing Fallon along with him. The rest of the film almost takes on the tone of a suspense thriller – will Cody kill Big Ed? will Cody catch on to Fallon? will Fallon survive? will Cody figure out that it was really his wife and not Big Ed who killed Ma? – which is broken at the end when everything comes to a head in a blaze of gunfire, a massive explosion, fire and a complete mental breakdown by Cody. It’s both gripping and mesmerizing, made even more so by a unforgettably volatile performance by Cagney, at times pathetic, terrifying, childish, cunning, and even hurt.
The classic gangster of the early 1930s falls because of his own hubris. James Cagney adds new layers to the earlier gangster persona, his motivations slightly obscure. He doesn’t seem ambitious for power or influence, per se. The ambition is coming from his mother, who always tells him “On top of the world, son.” He also doesn’t seem that interested in enjoying the wealth he has, which frustrates his wife, who has to talk him into buying her a fur coat. She wants to live high, have rich things, spend money, travel and hobnob with the rich, but she can’t seem to get her husband interested in any of that until his mother is dead.
Cody Jarrett himself seems most interested in the life of a gangster: the camaraderie, the power over others, the planning, danger, thrill, and also the killing. He gets a high from it and he just likes hanging out with the guys, especially Fallon. Verna is an accessory.
And for all that he’s cruel, violent and enjoys it, he’s too trusting. It’s ironic, because in a way, he’s not wrong to place all his faith in his mother. She’s the one who figures out that someone is trying to kill him while he’s in prison (he put the incident down to an accident), she’s the one who senses that they are being followed by the police at the beginning of the film, she’s the one who also who knows Big Ed and Verna are going to betray him. Her mistake is not in taking on Big Ed, but in underestimating Verna.
But once she’s gone, Cody trusts all the wrong people. He makes Fallon his friend and confidante and believes Verna when she tells him that it was Big Ed who murdered his mother and that she never betrayed him at all (she’s nearly as good a liar as Brigid O’Shaughnessy and apparently just as much of an opportunist). Near the end of the film, Cody is sitting in a room with Fallon and Verna, fully trusting these two people, one a cop and the other the murderer of his mother. It would be pathetic if everyone wasn’t so afraid of him.
White Heat was directed by Raoul Walsh and I’ve come to like his films very much. There’s something uncompromising about them that I enjoy, brisk, full of energy, never dull. James Cagney is fantastic. Edmund O’Brien is not dynamic, but he’s not supposed to be. He’s a cop who’s playing the part of a solid and loyal friend. Margaret Wycherly matches Cagney for dynamic personality, as a woman so tangled up in her son’s life, willing him upwards to success, still babying him when he’s low and propping him up so he won’t appear weak to others. Her character intrigued me. She knows insanity’s in the family – her own husband went insane. Does she not see it in her son? Does she think she can hold it in check?
Virginia Mayo is superb as a sort of cheap, gum-smacking Brigid O’Shaunessy. She’s out for the glamour and the high life of drinking, gambling, jewels, the life that so attracted gangsters and their molls in the early 1930s, and she will take whatever guy can give it to her, whether Cody or Big Ed. To be honest, when I first saw the movie, I thought Cody was going to kill her and I was impressed that she survives the film. She’s the only gang member left standing at the end (though she’ll get jail time).
For a person who grew up on musicals and costume-drama romances, I’ve really surprised myself by loving these early gangster films. They’re epic, like a Greek tragedy; not to compare Cody Jarrett to Achilles. To be honest, I never warmed to the characters in Greek epics. They always seemed to me like murderous, bloodthirsty, hubristic rapists eager for glory…actually, maybe there is a comparison to be made. But the comparison should be made in reverse. Cody Jarrett is not an American hero; Achilles is a Greek gangster. I don’t know if I’d begin with White Heat if I’d never seen a gangster film before. The best place to start is at the beginning, with Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (I haven’t seen Scarface yet, but it’s on my list). But White Heat is one of the best.