White Heat burns like hot coals even today as the epitome of incendiary cinema. It’s a gangster picture from master Warner Bros. craftsman Raoul Walsh that’s volatile and intriguing, highlighted by the always fiery James Cagney as a crazed man-child with a mom complex.
Cagney had stayed away from gangster pictures that made him a star for nearly a decade and it’s true that now it’s easy to label this a film-noir given the sweeping tide of the times including other pictures like The Killers, Brute Force, and so on.
Still, everything that is truly inspired from this film stems from Cagney’s performance because we have seen gangsters before, bank jobs, inside men, gun molls, and the like but Cody Jarrett is one for the ages. He throws a twisted wrench into what is already a quality thriller by going absolutely ballistic and simultaneously jolting it in the most peculiar ways.
Before Norman Bates was even whispered on the lips of audiences Cagney burst onto the scene with his demonic characterization, very plainly evil personified as the psychotic Cody Jarrett. He smacks policemen, guns down the worthless, and schemes incessantly. However, he also has a strange sense of family and friendship. He’s prone to crippling migraines like his insane father and still parks himself on his mother’s lap. He even befriends a copper, except he doesn’t know it. He gets duped like a two-bit stooge.
Edmond O’Brien was on the rise at this point following such films as The Killers and The Web. He still owns a supporting role in the sometimes thankless job as the decent heartbeat of law and order. But he has so much more character than all the other stiffs with their fine looks and chiseled jawlines who simultaneously faded into the annals of history.
Although he’s playing support to Cagney, there are a lot worse gigs and the pair works well with each other. At one time strangers, confidantes, and finally bitter enemies in the constantly seesawing dynamic that comes when an undercover agent looks to get buddy-buddy with a certifiable psychopath. Not surprisingly it makes for a thoroughly engaging crime film because the characters actually have something to them.
The iconic Mess Hall sequence brimming with Cagney’s explosive bravado is representative of his flair throughout the entire picture. It just won’t let up. It never lets up. A line of “telephone” takes a message down the row of inmates (including sports icon Jim Thorpe) before reaching the waiting ears of the hardened criminal. Like a stick of dynamite, he goes off and becomes possessed by some unnamed force. It represents the manic, off the wall style of Cagney that still compels audiences today. It’s no longer a simple performance. This is not acting (or it doesn’t seem like it). This is feeling, hate, anger, rebellion, and violence all channeled into a transcendent moment where the man has completely lost himself in a role. No one can touch him. It’s fantastic.
Virginia Mayo finds herself portraying her particular sultry siren accustomed to mink and bubblegum. While Steve Cochran stands tall as the main crony with big ideas, the aptly name Big Ed who is looking to worm himself in on Jarret’s territory (and female company), while he’s incarcerated. Meanwhile, Margaret Wycherly who was previously known as the angelic mother of Alvin York takes on a maternal role on the complete opposite spectrum and she does a fine job as a woman modeled after the notorious Ma Barker.
Any great crime story needs a final set piece where everything can culminate in one ultimate crescendo. White Heat does not disappoint in this regard as Agent Hank Fallon looks to tip off his colleagues following the inception of a big heist of a chemical plant in Long Beach. What follows is a tense dragnet and shootout and it’s a fitting place for Jarrett to meet his maker or in his case his mother. He literally goes into the inferno, blowing up and entering the conflagrations of hell in the most startling of fashions — still clinging doggedly to his mom–his twisted guardian angel of death. It’s a curtain call worthy of such a performance and knowing it can do no better, the film ends there, no fanfare just a grimy picture where criminals aren’t as cut and dry as Hollywood once supposed.