When James Cagney burst onto the screen in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, a star was born. Cagney’s machine gun delivery of dialog, commanding screen presence, and take-no-shit attitude made him wildly popular among the Depression Era masses, if not with studio boss Jack Warner, with whom Cagney frequently battled over salary and scripts that weren’t up to par. Films like LADY KILLER , THE MAYOR OF HELL , and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES made Cagney the quintessential movie gangster, but after 1939’s THE ROARING TWENTIES he hung up his spats and concentrated on changing his image. Ten years later, Cagney returned to the gangster film in WHITE HEAT, turning in one of his most memorable performances as the psychotic Cody Jarrett.
Cagney is older and meaner than ever as Jarrett, a remorseless mad-dog killer with a severe mother complex and more than a touch of insanity. Jarrett has frequent debilitating headaches brought on by some unnamed trauma that only Ma can soothe. The actor is an untamed hurricane in this role, swaggering one minute, having a complete meltdown when he gets news of Ma’s death the next. He’s at his best when he’s totally unhinged, cold-bloodedly ventilating the car trunk containing a would-be traitor with bullets, knocking spouse Verna off her chair, and the spectacular fiery finale where his madness engulfs him as much as the flames, delivering that immortal “Top of the world” line with gusto. Cagney’s Cody Jarrett is dangerous and unpredictable, a man to be feared, and that thread of fear permeates the film.
The women in Cody’s life say a lot about the kind of man he is. Margaret Wycherly is chilling as Ma, a far cry from her loving mother in SERGEANT YORK. Based loosely on Ma Barker, she’s been a criminal all her life, and has groomed her boy to be as ruthless as herself, if not more so. Virginia Mayo as Cody’s wife Verna is just as much a sociopath as he is, a duplicitous woman without morals who doesn’t hesitate to take up with Cody’s lieutenant Big Ed when her man goes to jail. Verna will lie and backstab to get her own way, but she’s deathly afraid of Cody’s wrath, letting Big Ed pay for Ma’s demise even though she pulled trigger that killed the older woman… shot in the back, no less! Cody and Verna are a match made in hell, and Virginia Mayo, who was one of Warner’s biggest stars at the time, received above the title billing just below Cagney. Both should’ve been nominated for Oscars.
Edmond O’Brien plays T-Man Hank Fallon, who goes undercover as convict Vic Pardo to try and gain Cody’s trust. It’s a tricky part, but the always reliable O’Brien pulls it off. Steve Cochran is his usual menacing self as Big Ed… just not as menacing as Cagney! Another old reliable, Fred Clark , is on hand as ‘The Trader’, brains behind Cody’s crimes. And the Familiar Face brigade is out in full force – say, isn’t that young Robert Foulk? Omigosh, there’s Claudia “ROBOT MONSTER” Barrett! That guy looks like the butler in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN! I could go on, but you get the idea, so happy hunting!
Raoul Walsh’s muscular, masculine direction makes WHITE HEAT even tougher. Walsh had success in the gangster genre before, helming Cagney’s THE ROARING TWENTIES and Bogart’s HIGH SIERRA, but he was one of those equally adept in any genre: silent classics like THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and WHAT PRICE GLORY, period pieces (THE BOWERY, THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE), westerns (THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, COLORADO TERRITORY), war dramas (DESPERATE JOURNEY , BATTLE CRY). This is the third of four films Walsh would make with Cagney, and a fine coda to the gangster cycle. WHITE HEAT is a classic in every sense of the word, a movie that absolutely lives up to its reputation.