Copyright 1949 Warner Bros. Pictures Distributing Corporation ​​​​​​​

White Heat was the first movie with James Cagney I ever saw. I must have been 15 years old and had seen a few classic gangster films like Little Caesar (1931), Scarface (1932), and Key Largo (1948), but I’d never seen a Cagney flick. Weird, considering he was one of two actors who defined the gangster genre of the 1930s, the other being Edward G. Robinson.
To truly understand White Heat, one has to backtrack a bit to Cagney’s earlier career. Cagney signed a contract with Warner Brothers in 1930 quickly establishing himself as one of the studio’s biggest stars with The Public Enemy. Cagney was thought to be difficult by the studios because he wanted higher pay along with his fellow actors, wanted to choose his own projects rather than being typecast by the studio in tough-guy roles, and disliked the Studio System (all valid complaints, by the way). Jack Warner dubbed him as “The Professional Againster.”
He left the Warner Brothers several times in the mid-1930s and brought a lawsuit against the studio for breaching his contract and ultimately won, which shocked Hollywood. No one fought the Studio System and won. Now a free agent, he found his victor short-lived as other studios were reluctant to hire him. He worked for Grand National, one of the ‘Poverty Row’ studios, for several years before going back to Warners in 1938 under a new contract.
Back at Warner Brothers, Cagney was typecast in the roles he tried to avoid, most notably in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). His last film of the 1930’s was The Roaring Twenties, directed by Raoul Walsh who directed him in White Heat 10 years later. 
Cagney finished his contract with Warner Brothers in 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy and won the Academy Award for Best Actor. With his contract with Warners up, James and his brother William decided to start their own film production company: Cagney Productions.
Cagney Productions released its films through United Artists and for the next 6 years the brothers worked as independent agents. James Cagney was determined to shed his tough-guy image and wanted to make more down-to-earth films. The production company’s first movie was Johnny Come Lately, which was released in 1943. Incidentally, it was one of few films released during the early ‘40’s that had nothing to do with propaganda or World War II. While a sweet little film and in my opinion a hidden gem, it didn’t make much money. None of Cagney Productions’ three films did. Audiences struggled accepting Cagney in kind-hearted roles, which is unfortunate because he’s great in them. He never gave a bad performance and was unfortunately a victim of typecasting. With his studio drawing in poor returns, he returned to Warner Brothers in late 1948. White Heat was greenlit to mark his return.
With the exceptions of Key Largo the year earlier, there hadn’t been any serious gangster films for the past decade. Movies had changed with war propaganda and the rise of noir films. Cagney had changed too: his hair was greying, he looked quite a bit older, and most notably put some weight on—as is typical in one’s middle age. He’d spent the last 10 years playing good guys: American soldiers and pilots, a barber, and of course George M. Cohan. But Warners didn’t care. With one of their biggest stars back, the studio wasted no time returning Cagney to his former gangster glory.
At 50 years old, it might seem strange to have him play one of his typical gangsters, who were always physically dynamic. But Cagney, being Cagney, had a card up his sleeve. Although he saw the movie as a cheap job, he suggested his character Cody Jarrett be a psychotic killer with an intense mother fixation. This change led to one of Cagney’s best screen performances and made Cody Jarrett his most terrifying creations. The AFI ranks Cody Jarrett as the 26th greatest villain in cinema history.
Audiences were ready to see Cagney back in action in the gangster roles he’d made iconic in the previous decade. Warner Brothers’ advertising stated the old Cagney was back.
Raoul Walsh was brought on to direct, having previously made two films with Cagney. Edmond O’Brien, cinema’s best everyman, was cast as Hank Fallon alias “Vic Pardo,” the undercover agent sent to infiltrate Jarrett’s gang. Virginia Mayo plays Jarrett’s wife, Verna, and would star with Cagney in a musical the next year. Margaret Wycherly was cast as Ma Jarrett, a character modeled after Ma Barker.
 There are two things I love about White Heat (three counting Cagney): the first is it’s a great time capsule into technology and police proceedings of the 1940s. This may have been one of the first caper films. It’s certainly a noir, not necessarily in lighting, but certainly in its cynical tone. What I find most interesting every time I watch it is the radio tracking technology, which was considered cutting-edge at the time. The second half of the film spends a lot of time showing how the radio tracker works. The gist of it is the radio tracker is attached to a car so the authorities can pinpoint the car’s location.
It’s pretty neat to see how it all works, even though it’s outdated by today’s standards. I’m not sure if this was real technology or made up specifically for the film as I haven’t been able to find much during research. Still, it’s a great way to see how the authorities might have tracked suspects over large distances back then.

The other element I love about White Heat is how unsympathetic almost all of the characters are. Edmond O’Brien doesn’t count because he’s on the side of the angels. But Cagney, Mayo, Wycherly and all the supporting baddies are as wretched as they come in the 1940s.
I’ve spoken enough about Cagney for now and will wait until the end to cover him. I’ll start with Wycherly as Ma Jarrett. It’s a very mannered performance, and it took me several viewings to realize her character isn’t some dotty old woman. Although she doesn’t kill anyone or throw any punches, Ma Jarrett molded and enabled her son into the cold-blooded killer we see in the film. Sure, she dotes on him now and then, but she always reminds him to stay on top and not to show weakness in front of their gang.
To get a full sense of her character, just watch the scene where she’s being tailed by the police: when she brushes them off her trail, she looks in the rear-view mirror and gives a smug grin. She takes over the gang while her son is in the slammer, and it’s easy to see how her authoritative personality rubbed off on him. Unfortunately, Ma Jarrett isn’t as young as she once was (she admits so to Cody) and unsuccessfully tries to deal with Big Ed.
Virginia Mayo is good as Verna, who’s one of the most unsympathetic molls in a gangster film. We get a sense of this through some visual cues: the first shot of her is snoring loudly, she eyes Big Ed during her first few scenes, and spits a wad of gum out in front of the camera. These are mild actions that most of us perform in everyday life (except eyeing Big Ed because he’s dead), but audiences in the 1940s would’ve picked up on those visual cues and known this is a bad woman.
And she is. Like Ma Jarrett, she doesn’t shoot anyone, not onscreen anyway, but she’s as two-faced and untrustworthy as they come. I’ve only seen Mayo in one other film, The Best Years of Our Lives, where she plays a similar type of role. This being a crime noir, her character is far more unsympathetic and dangerous. A chronic backstabber—and a rare example of the period of one who costs lives—she lives large with Big Ed while Cody’s in prison and kills his ma. When Cody busts out, she turns on Big Ed to save her own skin. She even tries to negotiate with the police at the end.
Mayo is very good in the role, her best scene being in the garage where she’s surprised by Cody, who’s just broken out. She perfectly captures the genuine terror of being face-to-face with her psychotic husband, but still displays hints of dishonesty as she goads Cody into thinking Big Ed killed his mother. Mayo later said she didn't have to act when working with Cagney; all she had to do was react because of his explosive energy.
Edmond O’Brien plays undercover agent Fallon, who poses as “Vic Pardo” in jail with Jarrett. O’Brien is the second star of the film and more well-known than Virginia Mayo at the time (he’d been in Hollywood for 10 years by that point) but he was third-billed because Warner Brothers execs thought audiences might think the film was a re-release of one of Cagney’s earlier films with his frequent co-star and friend Pat O’Brien (no relation to Edmond).
I said earlier that Edmond O’Brien was cinema’s best everyman. I stand by that statement. He made a career of supporting roles, with a few starring roles in films like D.O.A. (I need to review that at some point) and 1984. O’Brien was a great actor but never rose to star status, though he became one of the most admired and respected character actors of his day.
It’s easy to ignore him because of Cagney’s powerhouse performance, but O’Brien more than manages to hold his own.

Now we come to James Cagney, who is magnificent as usual. Cagney was always an explosive performer. His energy onscreen remains unparalleled. No other actor—not Marlon Brando, Meryl Streep, or Daniel Day Lewis—has ever been able to match his ferocity and dynamism. I’ve always been struck by how such a short guy can barely be contained by any screen, whether its 60 inches or 60 feet wide. He was a true force of nature and his performance as Cody Jarrett is one of the most captivating, enthralling, action-packed (even when he isn’t doing anything), and intense I’ve ever seen.
 There are two scenes from White Heat whose fame falls at Cagney’s feet. The first is the prison mess hall scene where Cody finds out his mother is dead. The reason this scene works so well is because it was eventually improvised. As written, the scene wasn’t working, so Cagney told Wash to put the two largest extras next to him and to keep the camera on him no matter what. Neither Walsh, nor the cast or crew knew what Cagney was going to do.
The catalyst for the mess hall scene is Jarret finds out his mother is dead. His reaction is slow at first as he looks down, quietly sobbing before he lets out an animalistic wail. Cagney boosts himself onto the table, runs across it, falls down, and then starts socking guards left and right. When they finally nab him, he shrieks “I want to get out! I want to get out of here!” He’s a frightened child crying for his mother.
It’s visceral and raw. I really can’t explain it other than telling you to go watch the scene. It’s truly a great moment of acting.
Cagney said he received inspiration for that scene from several places. He told a reporter towards the end of his life that the initial moment of silence just made the scene more believable: “I looked down because that first agony is private. If I’d looked up right away and started bellowing, it would have been stock company 1912.”
The wail was taken from a visit he made to a psychiatric hospital as a kid. “I knew what deranged people sounded like because once as a youngster I had visited Ward’s Island where a pal’s uncle was in the hospital for the insane . . . My God, what an education that was! The shrieks, the screams of those people under restraint! I remembered those cries, saw that they fitted [the scene], and I called on my memory as required. No need to psych up.”

The other famous scene is the ending, which has arguably become one of the most famous of all time, if not one of the most quotable. The entire climax at the chemical plant is thrilling. And it’s beginning is pure Cagney.
When Jarrett finds out that Fallon is an undercover agent, or “copper,” he loses any sense of sanity left in him. What’s brilliant is how Cagney plays the scene. Most actors would simply be angry, but not Cagney. He starts breaking down, on the verge of tears before he starts laughing. He continues laughing throughout the entire climax as he’s cornered by the police. He’s still giggling even as he’s shot several times. Realizing there’s no way out, Jarrett shoots the Horton Sphere he’s on and shouts one of the most famous lines in movie history before going up in smoke.
The American Film Institute ranked Cagney's last line "Made It Ma! Top of the world!" as #18 best quote in cinema and ranked White Heat as the 4th greatest Gangster film of all time behind The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Godfather Part II. I disagree with the AFI on many things but this isn't one of them. The film deserves every bit of praise it get.s
Is White Heat a deep film? No. Is it realistic? For the most part, but the noir dialogue can feel dated and cliché to contemporary viewers. But it’s intensely satisfying. Many modern audiences criticize films from the Golden Age of Hollywood as being “too boring” or “too slow.” While I disagree and feel those are ignorant statements, I’ve never heard anyone say that about White Heat. I’ve shown it to friends over the years and they loved it. Once the opening credits roll, the movie barrels ahead like the train in the first scene. It’s Old Hollywood filmmaking at its finest and Cagney at his best.
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