White Heat
directed by Raoul Walsh
(Warner Brothers, 1949)

I would never have described myself as a James Cagney fan. In fact, to the best of my recollection, I'd never even seen one of his films, unless I caught some piece of one on an aimless Saturday afternoon in my childhood. But my wife has been trying to get me to watch White Heat since we were married (I think it might have been one of the vows she made me recite), so I recently curled up with a little vintage gangster noir.

Wow. Cool.

White Heat is far from the standard gangster drama I was expecting. Cagney's gang leader, Cody Jarrett, is an ambitious and ruthless sort of criminal, with no qualms about sacrificing his men when necessary. He's even jovial about the notion of pleading guilty to a crime he didn't commit and accepting one to two years of prison time to escape justice for the crime he did commit, which would mean life (or death) if convicted.

Cody is also plagued by crippling headaches and bouts of madness, a family trait possibly shared with his late father and brother, and definitely encouraged in some ways by his possessive, protective mother (stage actress Margaret Wycherly in a role inspired by real-life gangster Ma Barker). His unshakable love for his Ma is Cody's greatest redeeming trait, and news of her death inspires everything that comes from then to the end of the film.

The plot is thickened by several key characters: Big Ed Somers (Steve Cochran) is the thug who wants to take over both the gang and Cody's wife, and Verna Jarrett (Virginia Mayo) is the lady who'll go whichever way seems to promise the biggest payoff. Philip Evans (John Archer) is the tireless treasury agent on Cody's trail, and Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien) is the undercover cop who will go to prison in order to win Cody's trust and uncover his plans.

White Heat is a classic that deserves the name, and I can see why Cagney's famous line -- "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" -- is among the best-known movie quotes in Hollywood history. This is a gem.

by Tom Knapp
6 January 2007

Buy it from Amazon.com.