An extraordinarily entertaining gangster classic, featuring a powerhouse performance
This week I’m excited to present the utterly compelling and entertaining classic, “White Heat”. It broke new ground in character development, contains one of cinema's greatest performances, and is among my personal favorites. This exhilarating gangster-meets-noir film is chockfull of edge-of-your-seat action from its opening train robbery to its startling climax. This story of a psychopathic mama’s boy is so efficiently made it moves without a second wasted and is as riveting today as ever. “White Heat” made it to #4 on AFI’s list of the “Top 10 Gangster Films of All-Time”, and its lead character, “Cody Jarrett” (possibly the most coldblooded film character we don’t hate) is ranked at #24 on their list of "The 100 Greatest Heroes & Villains”. It is by far one of the best gangster films ever made.
While the action in “White Heat” is complex, its story is simple. “Arthur ‘Cody’ Jarrett”, a volatile, psychotic criminal, successfully leads his gang at robbing a mail train carrying $300,000 US federal currency, in his quest to get to the “top of the world”. The rest of the film is basically “Cody” doing whatever he can to outwit law enforcement and avoid the gas chamber. Throw in the fact that he is unusually attached to his villainous mother “Ma Jarrett”, has a two-timing girlfriend “Verna”, and trust issues with everyone but “Ma”, and you have the makings of thrilling entertainment. The fantastic script by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts was based on a story by Virginia Kellogg, who earned the film’s only Academy Award nomination for Best Story (a category that no longer exists). When seen today, the film’s physical violence may not be as shocking as in 1949, but “White Heat” still packs a wonderfully powerful punch. What separates this film from others is its top-notch script, the character of “Cody”, and James Cagney’s staggering performance. It is without a doubt one of cinema’s best and most engrossing classics.
“White Heat” also stands out because it was among the first films to show the inner demons of a gangster. “Cody” is not simply ruthless, he’s flesh and blood, troubled and filled with complexities, and we are given some sort of explanation to his madness. In addition, “White Heat” has an almost documentary approach to how it shows law enforcement investigations. We are walked through the day’s cutting edge methods and technology of car phones, oscillators, and undercover agents. This film was a sort of bridge between the earlier gangster films of the 1930s, and the abundant syndicate crime dramas that would follow.
American director Raoul Walsh directed “White Heat”. His impeccable, no-nonsense approach to the story creates its gritty style, and his rapid pace keeps it engaging. He uses very few close-ups in the film, always placing his characters in a setting. A prime example (which I’ll talk about more in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section) is in the prison cafeteria scene. It’s a personal moment for “Cody”, cleverly filmed almost exclusively in surprising long shots. Raoul Walsh began his career as a theater actor, then found himself playing cowboy roles in silent films, came to Hollywood and soon began working with director D.W. Griffith as an actor and an assistant director. He famously portrayed “John Wilkes Booth” in Griffith’s landmark 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation”. Walsh's last acting appearance was in the 1928 film “Miss Sadie Thompson” opposite Gloria Swanson (which he also directed), and made one final cameo appearance as himself in the 1949 musical comedy “It's a Great Feeling”. Walsh directed close to 140 shorts and feature films from many different genres but became best known for making virile action films and crime dramas. He directed four films with James Cagney, six with Errol Flynn, and gave John Wayne his first starring role. Walsh was one of Hollywood’s top directors for about forty years, and directed such classics as "The Thief of Bagdad", "What Price Glory”, "They Drive by Night", "High Sierra","The Strawberry Blonde", "They Died with Their Boots On”, "Battle Cry”, "The Big Trail", and "The Roaring Twenties”. Surprisingly, he was never nominated for an Academy Award. While driving on location for the 1928 film "In Old Arizona” (which Walsh was set to direct and appear as the “Cisco Kid”), a jackrabbit hit his car windshield and he lost his right eye. He was married three times, including his first marriage to silent film star Miriam Cooper. Raoul Walsh died in 1980 at the age of 93.
“White Heat” is first and foremost a vehicle for its star, James Cagney who brilliantly plays “Cody Jarrett”. No matter how phenomenal a performance may be, when it is made to look easy, and appears in what is largely considered a “lesser” film genre (like gangster films, comedy, musicals, and westerns), it is often taken for granted (like the comedic expertise of Cary Grant or the raw emotion in the acting of musical star Judy Garland). While Cagney is at the very top echelon of classic stars, he never truly gets recognition for his exceptional artistry, especially in roles like “Cody". He did make it to #8 of the men on the AFI’s list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”. Cagney portrays “Cody” with such astounding naturalism and unrestraint, it is nothing less than a perfect performance. His distinct accent, way of speaking, and energetic short, stocky body (which moves like an agile brick wall), all come together to make this dangerous, slightly insane man quite exciting to watch. When “Cody” gets one of his headaches and recovers, Cagney's physicality and emotion are so real, one can’t help but feel concern. This is acting at its highest level. As an actor who has studied and worked for several decades, when I watch Cagney I can’t help but be in awe of his unrelenting honesty and immense skillfulness. Cagney’s expressive face tells all, and the way he listens to his fellow actors is as if he’s drinking in and digesting what he’s seeing and hearing for the first time. In scenes of “Cody” in his jail cell cutting his nails, or whispering to “Pardo" about breaking out, one can see how truth and subtle detail permeate Cagney’s craft. And then there are his two iconic scenes (in the prison’s mess hall and the final scene) which I’ll comment about in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section so I don’t spoil any surprises for first time viewers.
The red-haired, James Cagney was born in poverty, in a rough part of New York City. A tough kid, he worked odd jobs from when he was fourteen, and considered becoming a boxer but went to college to become a commercial artist. When his father died, he dropped out of college to earn money for his family. Having acted in neighborhood amateur plays, he tried out for a paying, professional acting job as a sailor in drag in the chorus line of the show, “Every Sailor”. He got the part and it began his professional acting career. Cagney danced in vaudeville and on Broadway, eventually appearing in dramatic roles. In one of his shows he met fellow chorus performer Frances Willard Vernon, whom he married in 1922. Cagney’s break came with the Broadway show “Penny Arcade” in 1929, opposite an actress named Joan Blondell. The two got rave reviews and caught the eye of movie star Al Jolson who bought the rights and sold them to Warner Brothers with the catch that Cagney and Blondell appear in the film version. The film was made in 1930 as “Sinner’s Holiday", which was Cagney’s first film. Both he and Blondell were put under contract to Warner Brothers and would individually go on to become two of the biggest movie stars of the 1930s. In the film, Cagney played a bad but sympathetic killer, and because he was so good at it the studio continued to cast him in similar roles. His fourth film, the classic “The Public Enemy” in 1931 (also featuring Blondell and Jean Harlow) made Cagney a star and officially typecast him as a tough gangster. Not just a fighter on-screen, when he realized how much Warner Brothers was making from his films, and that he was paid $400 a week as compared to his movie star counterparts who were paid six figures per film, he demanded a raise. Warners declined, so he walked out and went back to New York. As his films kept making money, Warners realized his value, relented and gave him a new contract for $4,000 a week, guaranteed him top billing, and required him to make no more than four films a year. Because Cagney looked at acting as a job and not his passion, he was willing to walk away, and walked out of Warner Brothers several times in his career, each time coming back to more money and more control over his films. He also sued Warners over breach of contract in 1936 and won (one of the first actors to do so over a contract). He also insisted that he no longer be shot at with live ammunition when making a film (which is what was used in the early days - from machine guns with real bullets to real cannon balls), as he was almost killed while filming 1932's “Taxi!”.
Cagney was instrumental in changing the industry standard to using blanks and other non life-threatening methods for ammunition. In 1933 he helped form the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) to protect the rights of actors. He finally got a chance to dance on-screen (which he preferred to acting) in the classic 1933 Busby Berkeley musical, “Footlight Parade", also starring Blondell. He would dance in other films as well, most famously in the 1942 musical “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, where he played George M. Cohan. His touching performance and unique dancing in that classic earned him a Best Actor Academy Award (his only win). He appeared in many other classic films, including “Angels with Dirty Faces” (for which he earned his first of three Best Actor Academy Award nominations), "G' Men", "The Strawberry Blonde", "Each Dawn I Die", and "Blonde Crazy”. Tired of playing gangsters, the classic 1939 Walsh film “The Roaring Twenties” was the last time he played one until “White Heat”. By the time “White Heat” came around, Cagney had formed his own production company with his brother, which was failing and he needed a hit. Though he did not want to return to playing gangsters, his popularity had dropped and he knew audiences preferred him in that role, so he accepted “White Heat” from Warner Brothers. He had a new contract with them (again), and it allowed him major input in the film. Cagney wasn’t originally happy with the script so he came up with the idea making “Cody” psychotic, and brought in actor friends Frank McHugh and Humphrey Bogart to help improve the script and dialogue. In some ways, the film seems to be a winning culmination of many of Cagney’s previous films and characters. “White Heat” was an enormous success and made Cagney a legendary tough guy, though it would be the last major Cagney-driven film in his career. He was 50 years old, and his days as a romantic lead were pretty much over. One standout film and performance after “White Heat” was the 1955 musical “Love Me or Leave Me”, where he plays gangster, husband, and show business manager to Doris Day, and for which he received his third and final Best Actor Oscar nomination. In 1961 he starred in the Billy Wilder comedy, "One, Two, Three”, and had trouble remembering his lines during the filming of a long speech. He decided it was time to call it quits and retired from acting. He was lured back for only two more appearances: a small role in the 1981 film “Ragtime”; and his final appearance in the 1984 TV movie “Terrible Joe Moran”. In 1980 he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor, and in 1984 his friend President Ronald Reagan presented him the Medal of Freedom. He and wife Frances remained married for 65 years (until Cagney’s death). James Cagney died in 1986 at the age of 86.
Virginia Mayo stars as “Verna Jarrett”, “Cody’s” opportunistic and scheming wife who loves all that money can buy. Walsh very smartly introduces us to “Verna” glamorously sleeping while snoring. Right away we know that this beautiful woman has an unglamorous side, only to quickly find her telling “Cody”, who’s stashing his gang’s stolen money into a suitcase, “It’s your suitcase ‘Cody’. Why don’t you keep it all?”. Mayo is perfect in the part, able to change from seductive to tough to innocent to manipulative, and all on a dime. “Verna” is always on the prowl for something better. Notice the way she quickly checks out the policeman who holds the door for her as she leaves the police station. It’s details like that which make for a real and interesting character. “Verna” in “White Heat” is perhaps Mayo’s best role and performance. Virginia Mayo began her career in vaudeville and nightclubs while very young, making it to Broadway in 1941. Hollywood soon discovered her beauty and talent, and she began making films in 1943. She was given her first starring role in 1944 opposite Bob Hope in the comedy spoof, “The Princess and the Pirate”. That film was a hit and with it she found stardom. After appearing in two light musicals, in 1946 she was cast in a dramatic role in the Oscar winning film, "The Best Years of Our Lives”, where funny enough she played a cheating wife whose lover is portrayed by Steve Cochran (who plays 'Big Ed’ in "White Heat"). She received praise for her role, and by the late 1940s Mayo became one of Warner Brothers’ top box office stars. Early on she appeared in many musicals (she was a dancer, although her singing was always dubbed by someone else) and later in her career she was in many westerns. She was paired opposite Danny Kaye in five films including "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and "Wonder Man”, and worked with Walsh in four films (including"Captain Horatio Hornblower" and "Along the Great Divide”). Mayo worked steadily in the 1950s, and towards the end of the decade as parts became harder to come by, she turned to television where she mostly appeared through the 1980s. She also returned to the stage in the 1960s in dinner theater and touring productions of shows such as “Barefoot in the Park” and “Good News”. Her other notable films include "South Sea Woman", "The Flame and the Arrow”, and "The West Point Story” also opposite Cagney. Her final film was the 1997 horror film, “The Man Next Door”. She was married once, to actor Michael O’Shea, until his death. Virginia Mayo died in 2005 at the age of 84.
Edmond O'Brien plays “Hank Fallon” aka "Vic Pardo”, the cop that goes undercover. O’Brien makes the character fearless, holds his own against Cagney’s larger-than-life presence, and brings a certain strength that grounds the film in sanity and virtue. He is wonderful in all his scenes with Cagney, and you can see how “Cody” could end up trusting this man. Edmond O’Brien began as a magician, taught by his neighbor Harry Houdini. After becoming interested in acting and appearing in school plays, O’Brien pursued acting and making it to Broadway. His first film appearance was as “Gringoire” in the 1939 classic "The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. He went on to win a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for the 1954 film, “The Barefoot Contessa”, and would again be nominated for his supporting role in the 1964 classic, “Seven Days in May”. While he appeared in many types of films and roles, he is best remembered for his appearances in film noir classics such as "D.O.A.", "The Killers”, "The Hitch-Hiker”, "711 Ocean Drive”, and of course, “White Heat”. From the late 1950s on, O’Brien appeared extensively on television, in guest appearances as well as starring in the title roles of the crime series "Johnny Midnight" and the courtroom drama series, ”Sam Benedict”. O’Brien appeared in many classics, and others not yet mentioned include "Fantastic Voyage", "The Wild Bunch”, “The Greatest Show on Earth”, “Julius Caesar”, ”The Longest Day”, “Birdman of Alcatraz”, and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. He was married twice - to actresses Nancy Kelly and Olga San Juan. Edmond O’Brien died in 1985 at the age of 69.
Margaret Wycherly is outstanding as "Ma" Jarrett”, the cool, collected, and scary mother of “Cody”. I love her distinct voice and way of speaking. It helps create a memorably tough and hardened woman who is easily the backbone behind “Cody”. “White Heat” was originally to be the story of real life gangster Ma Barker and her boys, and with Wycherly’s portrayal, you can see traces of that. “Ma Jarrett” was unusual, as it wasn’t often you saw such a despicable portrait of a mother in a Hollywood film at that time. Born in London, Margaret Wycherly was primarily a stage actress and would appear in theater (including Broadway) throughout her entire career. She made just shy of three dozen film and TV appearances, including many classics such as "Random Harvest", "The Yearling", "Crossroads", "Keeper of the Flame", and as Gary Cooper's mother in "Sergeant York", for which she earned a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination (her only). She was married and divorced once. Margaret Wycherly died in 1956 at the age of 74.
Steve Cochran plays “'Big Ed’ Somers”, a guy in “Cody’s” gang who has big ideas of his own. Cochran does a great job making “Big Ed” into a slick, stealthy criminal who pines to run things. He also has that dangerous ladies’ man edge, which makes it understandable how “Verna” could fall for him. Cochran is so believable as a gangster/bad guy with sex appeal, he became typecast in that type of role. Steve Cochran quit college and went straight to Hollywood to make his dreams of becoming a star a reality. It was tougher than he anticipated, so he headed to New York and appeared on Broadway in 1944. After finally being noticed by Hollywood, he moved back there and appeared in his first film, “Booked On Suspicion” in 1945. His second film was the musical, “Wonder Man” starring Mayo (the first of six films they would make together), in which he played a mob boss. He appeared in several more films (including “The Best Years of Our Lives”) before returning to Broadway opposite Mae West in “Diamond Lil” in 1949. From that show he was given a contract with Warner Brothers, and his first film was “White Heat” (which is perhaps his most memorable role). Most often playing some sort of tough villain and/or shady lover, he would appear in over sixty films and TV shows in his twenty year career, including such films as "The Chase", "Storm Warning", "The Damned Don’t Cry", "Jim Thorpe -- All-American", and "The Desert Song”. Though a notorious womanizer, he was married (and divorced) three times. The roles for which Cochran was typecast were not that far from the real man. He lived an Errol Flynn type lifestyle - fast cars, women, gambling, fights, drinking, and excess. And like Flynn, it caught up with him and you can see his physical decline in later performances. In 1965, aboard his yacht outside Acapulco, Mexico, he and his all-female "crew" (ages 25, 19, and 14), set out to reportedly search for locations for a film he was developing. Cochran died onboard, and none of the women knew how to sail the yacht. After ten days of drifting at sea (with Cochran’s decomposing body), the women were finally rescued off the coast of Guatemala. His autopsy revealed he died of a lung infection. Steve Cochran was only 48 years old. He has since become a sort of underground film noir icon.
I just want to point out that the amazing score was by Max Steiner, whom I’ve written about in several posts: “King Kong”, “Mildred Pierce”, “Gone With the Wind”, “Casablanca”, and “The Searchers”. Once again his score is a flawless fit, knowing when to add the perfect emotion and tone, and when to keep quiet.
Put one of the screen’s best actors in a provocative role, with an action-packed story, and expert direction, and entertainment can’t get any better. You definitely don't want to miss this classic. Enjoy “White Heat”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
One of the film’s standout scenes is in the prison’s cafeteria. This moment, in which a man learns that his mother (the only person he truly trusts or loves) has been murdered, is filmed with no close-ups (and several far shots), yet the scene is incredibly personal and chilling to the core. Walsh keenly shows him surrounded by inmates and looked down on by guards, emphasizing his helplessness. The manner in which “Cody” becomes unhinged (which could easily have been over-the-top comical) is performed with stunning truth and freedom. Cagney’s performance is such a powerhouse, all I can say is, wow! Another interesting note about this scene is that only Walsh and Cagney knew what was going to happen. None of the 300+ extras had any idea, and their reactions are real (and some were literally terrified). It is an unforgettable iconic moment, and a tour-de-force for Cagney.
Another unexpected and chillingly iconic moment is the final scene in which “Cody” blows himself up atop the oil refinery as he says with glee, "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”. That line has such power, it was voted #18 of “The 100 Greatest Movie Quotes Of All Time” by AFI, and has been quoted in different films and TV shows, including Denzel Washington in the 1991 film “Ricochet”. Dialogue from the beginning of that scene can be heard in the song “White Heat” by Madonna.