"Made it Ma--top of the world!"
By the end of the 1940s, it had been years since James Cagney, once the ultimate movie gangster, had portrayed one on screen. Attempting to branch out as an actor and show all that he was capable of doing, Cagney had sidestepped pigeonholing and moved on to many other diverse parts. And yet, after enough time had passed, Warner Bros. was finally able to lure Cagney back to the genre that put him --and to a certain degree, the studio--on the map.
In doing so, Cagney created what is undoubtedly his most nuanced and fascinating gangster role, and most likely the greatest of his career, period. It makes sense that he would have held out for all those years, until such a plum part came along. Unlike previous racketeers he had played, like The Public Enemy's Tom Powers, who are guys relatively decent at heart that come to a bad way of life due to unfortunate circumstance, Cody Jarrett is a full-on psychopath, rotten to the core.
Watching Cagney dig into the part with relish is amazing. Jarrett is a bona fide monster, and yet Cagney plays him in such a fascinating, magnetic fashion that he never comes off two-dimensional or unbelievable. In fact, a good argument could be made that Cagney was one of the first to bring true naturalism to cinematic acting. Cagney's Cody Jarrett paves the way for James Caan in The Godfather, and especially Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. In that way, White Heat may be the beginning of the modern gangster film.
A demented, murdering bandit, Jarrett is famously coddled by his sinister mother, played sharply by Margaret Wycherly. The relationship is a twisted one, an unhealthy prolonging of the maternal influence, mixed together with Jarrett's amoral criminality to form an unforgettably warped character. By his side is the beautiful Virginia Mayo playing the archetypal gangster's moll, Verna--a hard woman who goes head-to-head with Ma for Cody's affections.
And speaking of Ma, it is her death that leads to the moment in this film that may be Cagney's defining scene. Upon discovering of her passing while in jail, Jarrett launches into an animalistic frenzy in the middle of the prison cafeteria, collapsing utterly into a subhuman mass of unreasoning pain and sorrow. There is nothing pretty here, no stylized dramatic presentation--make no mistake, this is raw stuff. And it demonstrates Cagney's absolute mastery of the acting craft.
Our director is Raoul Walsh, who had previously directed Cagney in The Roaring Twenties 10 years earlier, and had done another great gangster picture, They Drive By Night, with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart. Walsh seems intent on remaking the genre that had proven so popular during the 1930s, instilling a much darker edge, and also a bizarre fixation on technology that is probably very much in line with America's post-war tech obsession heading into the 1950s.
The writing team of Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff turned in the screenplay--these guys were personal favorites of Cagney's, and it's easy to see why. They deliver a script that is rich and layered, presenting the criminal element in a way far less romantic than what had been seen before. It's no wonder Cagney would use them again, including a few years later for his Lon Chaney biopic, The Man of a Thousand Faces (and in a totally random note, this same team would go on to create Charlie's Angels some 25 years later...)
One interesting aspect of Roberts and Goff's script, however, is the challenge of presenting undercover FBI agent Hank Fallon, who befriends Jarrett and joins his gang, only to turn him over to the feds. By post-modern standards, this character would be considered a rat and a heel, but in 1949 this simply would not have been permitted by the Hays Code, not to mention that mainstream American society hadn't yet developed that deep-seated and sanctioned contempt for authority. So instead, Fallon is a stalwart hero, doing his duty to take a vicious killer off the streets. It's an unusual take for those used only to modern gangster movies and their unbridled glorification of the criminal, but it works.
As for the climactic scene at the factory, any lover of film has at least a passing familiarity with Cody Jarrett's standoff, in which he utters the famous line at the top of this post. It's a powerful scene, literally ending in a gigantic explosion that spells the end of James Cagney as movie gangster. The movie itself also acts as a transition from the classic gangster pictures of old, presaging the much grimmer, bleaker, gangster cinema to come, populated with unhinged, violent sociopaths.
NEXT UP: Sunset Boulevard (1950)