“Made it, Ma! Top of the World!”
In my previous post for our ongoing CRIMEWATCH series I looked at the film that catapulted Edward G. Robinson into the limelight Little Caesar (1931). While I love that movie and its star, the man who gets top billing in this film review is my all time favorite of the old school Hollywood actors.
James Cagney could really play any kind of role and had such a wealth of talent. You could see the dynamic range from his work in comedies like Blonde Crazy (1931) to musicals Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) to his classic gangster films like The Public Enemy (1931) and The Roaring Twenties (1939). Another one of the very best examples of that popular early pulp genre is this 1949 film noir directed by Raoul Walsh which Cagney starred in.
We are introduced to the nefarious criminal Arthur “Cody” Jarrett (James Cagney) as he and his pals are speeding down the highway in a car. Two of his gang are already on a train, holding the conductors at gunpoint ordering them to have it come to a stop. The gang take control of the locomotive after which they blow up the postal car and get all the money inside. Cody shoots both of the engineers but in the fray, one of his his men Zuckie (Ford Rainey) is burnt up by the blazing hot steam from the engine. They help him up and take off with $300,000.
The gang hide out at a house in the country where Cody’s mom (Margaret Wyncherly) cooks up some food for them. Cody’s wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) is also there and its apparent she’s more interested in looking glamorous than being a criminal’s wife. As the men wait things out, Cody is hit with one of his intense headaches which cause him excruciating pain, so his loving mother comforts him until it passes. When the crew get news that a storm is coming their way (which will give them time to evade the authorities) they pack up the stolen loot and their belongings. Cody tells one of the men, Cotton (Wally Cassell) to put Zuckie out of his misery since he’s so badly burned, but he can’t do it, he just shoots off his gun to give the impression he’s followed the order.
Some time later, the cops find Zuckie dead from succumbing to his injuries, but summize that he was one of the train robbers. They get a nice clue in the form of fingerprints on a discarded cigarette pack which happen to be Cotton’s. When Cody finds out the cops are wise to them he starts to get antsy. While out shopping, Cody’s mom is seen by a cop who places a ribbon on her car (so the other policemen can spot it) and they tail her but she sees them in her rearview leading them away from the hotel where Cody is. The cops continue searching for them and later come across the car parked at the hotel. Cody is almost arrested but is able to shoot one of the cops then he, Verna and his mother take off. The cops chase after them but Cody pulls into a Drive-In theater. He decides the best thing to do is give himself up. His idea is to tell the cops he was pulling a small hotel robbery the same day of the train holdup, that way he’ll get less time in the big house. When the cops later interrogate Verna and Mrs Jarrett, the two stonewall them since theres no solid evidence of Cody being in the area the night before and his plan works.
Enter Officer Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) a cop whose specialty is working in prison undercover to extract information from criminals. Fallon is sent in to be Jarrett’s cellmate and to find out where the $300,000 is as well as who the fence is that set up their jobs. Fallon finds out that the Jarretts have a history of mental illness so the cops want him to get the info quickly before Cody really cracks up and is put into a hospital. Fallon uses the fake name “Vic Pardo” and tries to become friends with Cody. One day when the inmates are getting pencillin shots, Fallon/Pardo spots a criminal named “Bo” Creel (Ian McDonald) who he helped put there years earlier and has to duck out before he’s spotted. He does this by hitting a couple of the guards, this results in two positive things: he helps save his cover and gives the impression hes a tough guy.
While Cody is in jail, Ma Jarrett and the boys keep pulling jobs and he still gets a cut. What he doesn’t know is that one of his pals “Big Ed” (Steve Cochran) is having an affair with Verna who he’s going to run away with. Ed also plans to have Cody knocked off by Roy Parker (Paul Guilfoyle) another guy that’s inside the joint. Parker, who controls a large winch, drops a piece of heavy machinery on Cody but luckily Pardo/Fallon knocks him out of the way in the nick of time. When Cody’s mom visits she lets him know all about what Big Ed was trying to do and that it was no accident. She leaves after telling Cody she’s going to take care of Big Ed and Verna herself. While heading back to the workroom, Cody, who is worried about his mother, suffers one of his headaches and Pardo/Fallon covers for him. Later that night, Cody quietly tells Fallon/Pardo that he’s planning to bust out, but Pardo/Fallon explains that he’s got a perfect way to do it without the need for guns, Cody tells him if it goes through he’ll pay him back.
At dinner one day, Cody inquires about how his mother his doing. The inmates pass the word down the line and when Cody suddenly hears that she’s dead he explodes like some type of wild gorilla, flailing and thrashing all over the dining hall. This violent outburst gives the impression he is mentally unstable and he’s put into a strait jacket. While being fed some soup, Cody demands to eat it himself and is unstrapped which gives him enough time to get the jump on the guards with some help from a fellow inmate. Cody brings Pardo/Fallon along with him on the escape. This wasn’t the original plan but Cody saw his chance and went for it.
Once they’re out Cody goes after Verna and Big Ed to get revenge for his mother’s murder. While they stay at a hideout, a hunter shows up asking to use their phone. The gang think he’ll be killed for his intrusion but it turns out to be Cody’s contact (Fred Clark), the very fence Pardo/Fallon was searching for all along. Cody’s next big job is a payroll robbery at a chemical plant in Long Beach, CA. He uses a story his mother told him about the ancient Trojan Horse as inspiration. Pardo/Fallon must secretly inform the police about it without Cody discovering who he really is.
James Cagney’s performance as Cody Jarrett remains one of his most memorable and explosive. The character isn’t just the typical gangster by any means. He’s a man with complexities that when put together make up a very intriguing cinematic persona. Jarrett is at once, ruthless, sadistic and wreckless, but Cagney was actually able to find the humanity in this despicable mug through aspects like his strange, debilitating illness and pure love for his mother.
White Heat can only be described as a true masterpiece of the film noir & gangster genres. It’s paced like a freight train and has everything a great mobster film could contain: a bigger than life main character, a colorful supporting cast of characters, double crosses, thrilling robberies, melodrama, violence, sharp direction, thrilling music and crackling dialogue.
The character of Cody Jarrett was based on New York murderer Francis Crowley who engaged in a pitched battle with police in the spring of 1931 at the age of 18. Executed on January 21, 1932, his last words were: “Send my love to my mother.” Another inspiration may have been Arthur Barker, a gangster of the 1930s, and a son of Ma Barker.
Nominated for a Best Writing (Story) – Virginia Kellogg