White Heat (1949)    4 Stars

“Searing the screen like the death-blast of a sub-machine gun!!!”


White Heat (1949)

Director: Raoul Walsh

Cast: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien

Synopsis: A psychopathic criminal with a mother complex makes a daring break from prison and leads his old gang in a chemical plant payroll heist.




White Heat marked the return of James Cagney into the Warner Bros. fold after an ill-advised venture as an independent producer which produced no movies of any real worth. Such was the charisma of Cagney, though, he was still a solid box office attraction, and Warners were keen to cash in on his past as a big screen tough guy. They chose for his comeback a movie which pretty much re-defined the gangster genre, and reunited him with the always dependable Raoul Walsh, a director who had overseen some of Cagney’s biggest smashes in the 1930s and early 40s. White Heat traded on Cagney’s screen past, but it also remoulded his screen persona into something altogether darker and more vicious. Needless to say, audiences loved it and White Heat was a box-office smash which propelled Cagney back to major league status.

Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a violent, psychopathic gangster with a mother fixation who is prone to debilitating headaches. Jarrett heads a gang of outlaws which includes his mother (Margaret Wycherly) and wife Verna (a wonderfully slutty Virginia Mayo). When it looks like Cody’s about to be pulled for a job that will see him put away for life, he confesses instead to a crime which will net him only two years and see him out of the frame for the more serious crime. However, the police aren’t convinced and plant an undercover agent (a pre-podgy Edmund O’Brien) into his cell in order to nail both Jarrett and his money-launderer The Trader (Fred Clark).

Cagney was one of the better actors of his generation, and his performance in White Heat was his best by far. It’s difficult to imagine any other actor managing to provide such a convincing interpretation of Cody Jarrett. Who else could sit on their screen mother’s lap without inviting howls of laughter from the audience, and then moments later snarl his tough guy rhetoric with such persuasive contempt for those around him. Cody might have been a mother’s boy, but nobody was brave enough to tell him so. Cagney also inspires quality performances from those around him. Virginia Mayo, never a particularly accomplished actress, is actually quite good as Cody’s spoiled and treacherous wife, and Margaret Wycherly gives a wonderful performance as a loyal but scheming mother who has her little boy exactly where she wants him and will do anything to keep him there.

But great performances alone don’t make a classic movie, and the cast is aided by a first-rate script from Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, a duo who would, believe it or not, go on to create Charlie’s Angels. The pace of the story is breathless, but Goff and Roberts don’t allow that to prevent them from including telling little details that add touches of reality to its characters. The touches are there in the way they have sexy Mayo snoring gently in her sleep as we first meet her, and throwing the gum from her mouth before kissing Jarrett, and in the way Jarrett smiles as he surveys the corpse of a love-rival before silently extending his arm towards his wife as if inviting her onto the dance floor. Cagney makes the most of every little quirk the writers gave him, and while he’s called upon at times to portray Jarrett as an out and out loon he also plays him as an entirely rational and lucid — and almost likeable – character in his quieter moments.

(Reviewed 23rd December 2012)