Director: Raoul Walsh
After a decade of mixed successes and independent ventures, White Heat marks James Cagney’s return to the Warner Brothers’ studio (not his first, mind) and the style of films which made his name through the 1930s. Released ten years after his last big crime picture, 1939’s excellent The Roaring Twenties (reviewed here), and which itself was also directed by Raoul Walsh, White Heat shows Cagney giving more heart and soul into a role than any he had played previously. No longer the fresh-faced youngster of The Public Enemy, here he is older, tougher and more outright scary than anyone might have expected from him.
In essence, the story revolves around an unstable hoodlum named Cody Jarret, running a small gang who make a living off heists and selling their goods on the black market. Following complications arising from a train heist which starts the film, Cody comes up with a trick to give himself up to the police for carrying out a lesser crime on the night of the heist, expecting a jail sentence of less than two years, to clear him from any suspicion in the train job. Suspecting his motives, the police send an undercover cop to live alongside Cody in jail, to try and find out more about his operation and the men behind the black market operation he’s involved with. After gaining Cody’s trust, the pair manage to escape jail and engage firstly on a mission of vengeance against the man who killed Cody’s mother and stole his wife, before carrying out anther heist to to set them up for life, resulting in a stunning shootout sequence above and beyond anything that came before it.
It’s a far cry from the prohibition-era dramas Cagney previously helped to pioneer. He’s not just some cheap bootlegger or ex-solider down on his luck and forced into a life of crime, the character of Cody Jarret is, quite simply, a psychopath. A psychopath with mother issues. He’s a man who enjoys the thrill of the heist, with no sense of remorse for innocent civilians or his own men. He grins and cracks wise as he shoots a man from inside a locked trunk of a car. He neglects and torments his own wife. His life, even as a grown man (the film doesn’t try to show Jarret as being particularly younger than the 50-year old Cagney actually was at the time of release), is devoted to his mother, who feeds and encourages his lifestyle. Everything he does, he does for her. One of the most famous scenes of the film is of Cagney breaking down upon hearing news of her death – a powerful scene showing Cagney kicking and screaming like, quite literally, a child having a tantrum. It is from here that his descent into sanity takes its final nosedive, with the plot picking up a rapid pace and leading to a stunning showdown battle above an oil station between Jarret, his crew, and the police surrounding them, as his insanity buckles under its own weight. It’s above and beyond anything Cagney gave the screen before.
Whilst Cagney’s performance itself is, without question, the highlight of the film, there are a number of other intricacies and aspects which gives it its enduring appeal. Instead of playing it safe and revisiting the prohibition era (which was long gone, by this time) in an effort to recapture the magic of earlier films, the film keeps the setting in the then-present day. The plot itself is deeper than the earlier films – the relationship between Jarret and his mother, the use of the undercover cop in prison alongside him, the emotional instability, all of it builds together into a much more remarkable character study than any gangster film which came before it. Further intricacies such as showing daily life in prison, the use by police of modern technology, the remarkably explosive ending, all add up into a great picture. The rest of the cast are strong throughout – Virginia Wolf plays Jarrett’s wife, Verna; a drunken, double-crossing woman interested in money, power and getting her own way. She’s an excellent foil to Jarrett’s inherent madness. Margaret Wycherly plays Jarrett’s mother – a determined, controlling yet strangely loving mother who is the one other person who can equally dominate a scene alongside Cagney. Edmund O’Brien plays Hank Fallon – the undercover cop sitting in alongside Jarrett and watching his dip into insanity spiral further and darker down. He’s a strong man, acting as a moral compass for the audience, and fits in well alongside Cagney.
I previously described The Roaring Twenties as a footnote to the classic era of gangster movies. That it certainly was. White Heat kind of exists in its own little bubble – a film made during the peak of the film noir era, which captures all the darkness of that current movement but which also fits in as an overdue epitaph to the 1930s gangster era, and showed that even after ten years passed without any notable tough-guy roles, Cagney could still deliver a performance to rival anything being released at the time. Even Humphrey Bogart would have struggled to rival Cagney here (and given my love of Bogart, I don’t make that statement lightly).
It’s a remarkable film in its own right, and sits as an equally remarkable finale to the classic era of gangster movies. If ever there was an example of ‘saving the best ‘til last’, White Heat is it.
(Cagney, quite literally, about to be ‘top of the world’)