White Heat – 1949
Director – Raoul Walsh
Starring – James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, and Edmond O’Brien
The title of this film, White Heat, clearly comes from the boxed up frustration and rage capable of the late great James Cagney. The character, Cody Jarrett, is a hot-headed gangster with some not so subtle mother issues. Rounding out the cast of a 1000 dysfunctions is his wife, Verna, ready to cross him the moment he goes away, his right hand man, Big Ed, itching to step in and take his place, and his mother, Ma Jarrett, more than willing to accept and encourage his dependence on her. Together, these characters set up the conditions for a dramatic explosion of volatility and emotion, and explode they do.
Feeling the heat for the robbery we see him commit at the start of the film, Jarrett confesses to a lesser crime alibi that he had set up beforehand. Sent up to prison in Illinois, the federales plant a man on the inside in an effort to gain Jarrett’s trust. While on the inside, Cody’s gang is strong-armed, and his wife is swept off her feet by, who else, Big Ed. Without giving away too much of the story, things continue to fall apart from there.
Cagney’s performance matches perfectly with my pre-conceived image of him from the few film clips that I’ve seen, and through his performance in Angels With Dirty Faces. Since White Heat and Angels are among some of his most popular and well-known films, unfortunately, that means that his characters don’t seem like carefully crafted creations so much as they seem like him just playing himself. Whether or not Cagney possessed any similarity to the Cody Jarrett character, I’m not sure, but I had the distinct impression that he wasn’t really acting so much as talking. Now I may be completely wrong on that point, lord knows I was completely wrong about my preconceptions of Humphrey Bogart, but that is yet to be discovered.
Each other character is overshadowed by Cagney’s performance, and while each probably fulfilled their roles quite adequately, none were stand outs. Despite this fact, the story was still a very quick paced, enjoyable yarn about a self-destructing gangster. The inevitability of Jarrett’s disintegration was never in question, the drama lay in watching how he would flame out (if you have seen this film already…pun intended. If you haven’t seen the film…you’ll get it when you do). Just remember when life is snapping at your heels, and it seems like everyone is after you, it never hurts to yell out “Top of the world, Ma!”