White Heat (1949)
White Heat (1949)

Genre: Gangster Running Time: 1 hr. 54 min.

Release Date: September 3rd, 1949 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Raoul Walsh Actors: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran, John Archer, Wally Cassell

 


 

A

t the California state line, a train is hijacked by gunmen who demand to be let off at a specific point. Waiting for them is criminal mastermind Cody Jarrett (James Cagney), whose gang blows up the Post Office car to steal $300,000 worth of Treasury loot. They indiscriminately slaughter anyone dares to stand up to their actions, including shooting those who happen to remember Cody’s name. Afterwards, the crooks hole up at Jarrett’s mother’s (Margaret Wycherly) place, where his wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) also listlessly resides.

As they wait out the authorities’ pursuits, Cody contends with fits of debilitating headaches (like seizures), bitterly cold weather, and mutinous subordinates – including Big Ed (Steve Cochran) and Giovanni Cotton Valletti (Wally Cassell), who continually lose faith in their boss’s plans. The gang splits up to avoid detection, journeying to Los Angeles, where Jarrett’s mother is spotted by the T-men, led by U.S. Treasury Department investigator Phillip Evans (John Archer). But the indurate matriarch is used to being on the wrong side of the law, and manages to elude – momentarily – the efforts of a three-car tail.

Even though the villains are the stars, they’re never depicted as anything but villainous. These aren’t antiheroes who derive sympathy or await moral revelations; they’re cold-blooded murderers who unleash bullets at the slightest whim (the body count is surprisingly high). And so, the picture can only travel in one direction: apprehension and death. But it’s an adventurous, nail-biting odyssey, full of near-misses and nervy confrontations.

Despite his evilness, Cagney is riveting as an uncompromising psychopath, inventing clever ways to slip through the government’s fingers; amusingly, he’s far more fascinating than the heroes who track him across the country. Even when Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) goes undercover at a penitentiary to ingratiate himself with Cody, Cagney is still more absorbing. And Big Ed’s backstabbing schemes comparably prove more gripping than the actions of the righteous, especially since the antagonists receive greater screentime. “You wouldn’t kill me in cold blood, would you?”

Although Cagney is one of the all-time great gangster actors – and he’s once again in top hoodlum form even in this later picture – it’s the unusual relationship between his experienced, ruthless killer and his faithful, determined, viperous mother that really stands out. It’s this unsettling partnership that provides the catalyst for a chaotic mid-movie showdown in which all of the T-men’s elaborate efforts are scrambled and scrapped and revised. Still, Cagney alone is determined to be the most memorable element of this classic crime drama, positively stealing the show when he offs a rival stashed in a trunk; when he catches up to two-timin’ Verna (Mayo delivers a fine performance herself, alternating between helpless and conniving); and when he shrieks his immortal line (“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”) during the high-octane climax.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10