James Cagney returned to Warner Brothers to make this movie, still considered one of the best gangster films of all time. In the 1930s, Cagney had helped establish the genre—which became the studio’s franchise—with leading roles in The Public Enemy and Angels with Dirty Faces.
On one level, White Heat was a return to that successful style. Both Cagney and Warner Brothers were mending their fences after a contract dispute had ended their relationship and hurt him in the pocketbook and the studio at the box office.
But Raoul Walsh took the typical gangster-prison movie to another level with this story of Cody Jarrett, a mentally unstable and chillingly violent mob leader with an Oedipus complex. Cody’s relationship with his mother (Margaret Wycherly) gave Walsh a turbulent and troubling back story that positioned White Heat as part of a new wave of movie making.
This was film noir, movies where evil not only exists, but flourishes. Cagney’s Cody Jarrett isn’t a charismatic outlaw who viewers could vicariously admire, but rather a despicable embodiment of immorality, a man who takes what he wants whenever he wants it, mocking and abusing all those he comes in contact with—including the cops, members of his own gang and his less-than-virtuous wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo).
Ma, in fact, is the only woman whom Cody cares about. And it is her comfort he seeks when the rush of a migraine headache—the “white heat” from which the movie’s title is derived—staggers him.
Several reviewers later compared White Heat’s mother-son relationship to the one developed by Alfred Hitchcock in Psycho.
“Never would we see a stronger or more bizarre mother-son relationship . . . until Hitchcock stretched the situation . . . a decade later,” John Puccio wrote in an excellent review of White Heat published in 2005. David Thomson, writing in the (London) Guardian, said of Ma Jarrett, “there wouldn’t be a better killer mother until Psycho.”
Thomson, who included White Heat in his list of all-time, Top 10 gangster movies, also raised a question that is sure to generate debate among 21st-century gangster movie buffs: who is nastier— James Cagney or Joe Pesci?
Cagney’s performance here is the precursor to Pesci’s in GoodFellas. Both portrayed gangsters whose trademark was violent behavior fueled by a viciousness born of an internal turmoil that burst to the surface unexpectedly—and seemingly without logical justification.
Jarrett’s actions underscore that viciousness in scene after scene. At one point, he kidnaps Roy Parker (Paul Guilfoyle), an associate who had tried to kill him. Parker is placed inside the trunk of a car and Jarrett asks him how he’s doing.
Parker replies that it’s a “little stuffy.”
“I’ll give ya’ a little air,” Jarrett cackles, pulling out a gun and pumping four bullets into the trunk.
Members of Jarrett’s own gang refer to him as a “crackpot,” but can do little about it. When his second-in-command, Big Ed Somers (Steve Cochran), implies that he is ready to take over, another gang member quips, “Where do ya’ want the body sent?”
Everyone knows that to cross Cody Jarrett is to court death.
During the California train robbery that sets the movie in motion, Jarrett coldly guns down the train’s engineer and fireman because they have heard an associate refer to him by name. The associate, who gets burned by steam from the engine during the getaway, is later marked for death by Jarrett after he and the rest of the gang decide to abandon their mountain hideout. Left behind in a cabin, the disfigured gangster freezes to death.
The discovery of his body—and a cigarette pack from which a fingerprint is taken—give U.S. Treasury agents evidence linking the train heist and murders to the Jarrett gang. (The use of forensic evidence and “sophisticated” tracking and tailing techniques were emphasized by Walsh in a storyline that at times has the gritty feel of a documentary. The device worked well at the time, but today seems somewhat dated.)
The rest of the movie is built around the Feds’ attempt to nail Jarrett and Jarrett’s battle with his personal demons as he cleverly stays one step ahead of those pursuing him.
White Heat is sprinkled with some good, tough-guy dialogue. “You wouldn’t kill me in cold blood, would ya’, Cody?” a gangster who has betrayed Jarrett asks. “Nah, I’ll let ya’ warm up first,” Cody replies. The film is a character study that becomes more intense as the story unfolds, with Max Steiner’s musical orchestration heightening that tension.
Jarrett’s relationship with his mother first surfaces in the mountain hideaway, when he suffers a seizure. She takes him into a bedroom and strokes his head. After he comes out of it, she pours a glass of whiskey and offers it to him.
“Top of the world, son,” Ma Jarrett says, setting up the film’s signature phrase.
Ma Jarrett is the brains and stabilizing force behind the gang. Cody’s wife, Verna Jarrett, plays the opposite role, always pushing for more.
“I’d look good in a mink coat,” she tells Cody, who is insisting that none of the $300,000 taken in the train heist be spent.
“You’d look good in a shower curtain,” he replies.
Later, still complaining about cash, Verna says, “Money’s only paper if you don’t spend it.”
After Cody cleverly ducks the train heist investigation by confessing to an Illinois bank robbery that occurred at the same time (explaining that he couldn’t be in two places at once), he is sentenced to three years in jail.
Ma Jarrett takes over the gang, but Big Ed and Verna have other ideas.
Treasury Department investigators who don’t buy Cody’s alibi put an undercover agent (Edmond O’Brien) into the prison to get close to the gang boss and find evidence that will tie him to the train robbery and murders.
A series of penitentiary scenes play like set pieces from a dozen other prison movies that were made in the 1930s and 1940s. But they have their moments, one classic one coming when one of Jarrett’s cellmates is meeting with his lawyer. The lawyer goes on in great detail about the different legal moves he is attempting to get his client out of jail.
“Jerry,” the inmate finally says in disgust, “you couldn’t get me out of here if I was pardoned.”
Jarrett’s last contact with Ma occurs during a prison visit in which she tells him that Big Ed and Verna have taken off together. She blames herself and says she will make it right, but Jarrett tells her to leave it alone, that he will deal with them when he gets out.
Later, while planning an escape, he learns that Ma has died. He flips out and is taken to a prison infirmary. From there, he plots a new escape with a decidedly different agenda.
The ensuing mayhem stems from the death—murder—of the only woman who ever meant anything to him. His plans for revenge coupled with a Trojan horse scheme to knock off a chemical plant and its $426,000 payroll led to one of the most dramatic finales in crime film history.
White Heat was ranked fourth in the American Film Institute’s list of 10 greatest gangster films. Time magazine has listed it as one of the Top 100 films of all time.
HIT: Cagney. Cagney. Cagney. His performance became the template for movie gangsters for the next 20 years.
MISS: What passed for high tech in 1949 looks hokey in 2011. It’s like comparing those old Flash Gordon serials to Avatar. This is not a fault of the movie, but one that a 21st-century viewer will have to make allowances for while watching the film.
PIVOTAL SCENE: Sitting at the prison mess hall table with dozens of other inmates, Jarrett spots a new arrival and passes word down the line seeking news about Ma. Word comes back, inmate to inmate, “She’s dead.” When Jarrett gets the message, he goes nuts and the film takes on an even darker hue.
BEST LINE: “Made it Ma! Top of the world!” Jarrett shouts in his final lines in the film. The quote was listed at #18 on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest movie quotes. And like many others (“Play it, Sam,” in Casablanca for example), it is often misquoted. “Top of the world, Ma,” is how most people incorrectly remember the line, just as most usually say, “Play it again, Sam.”
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Let us soberly warn that White Heat is . . . a cruelly vicious film and that its impact upon the emotions of the unstable or impressionable is incalculable. . . . Mr. Cagney achieves the fascination of a brilliant bullfighter at work, deftly engaged in the business of doing violence with economy and grace.”—Bosley Crowther, New York Times
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: One of the burly prison inmates who helps pass word to Jarrett along the dining table that his mother has died is former All-American Jim Thorpe, who briefly tried his hand at acting after his sports career had ended.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Fred Clark, who played Daniel “The Trader” Winston (the fence who Jarrett employed to turn his stolen money—with traceable serial numbers—into usable cash), was just beginning his career. He had a small part in Flamingo Road, the Joan Crawford melodrama that came out the same year as White Heat. He later appeared in over 100 films and television series, usually as the bumbling associate or foil of the film’s male lead. His film credits include How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Don’t Go Near the Water (1957) and Auntie Mame (1958).
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The character of Cody Jarrett was loosely based on Francis “Two Gun” Crowley, an Irish gangster and convicted murderer from New York City. Crowley was arrested in 1931 after a two-hour shootout with police in Lower Manhattan that attracted a crowd of over 15,000, according to news reports from the day. Convicted of murdering a police officer, his last words before being executed a year later were, “Send my love to my mother.”
BODY COUNT: Seventeen, with sixteen dying by gunfire and one freezing to death.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”