Retro Review: ‘White Heat’

Moviegoers in the early days of gangster movies became familiar with seeing actors who were staples of the genre. Movie legends like; Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Pat heat1O’Brien, and Edward G. Robinson became icons of the Golden Age of Hollywood due to their prolific work in these films. But the talented actor who became most associated with Depression-Era gangster flicks was James Cagney. His piercing eyes, distinctive voice and ability to play ruthless criminals with a certain charm endeared the actor to audiences. Fans had such a familiarity with the actor that they began to refer to him with the informal “Jimmy” instead of “James” in much the same fashion they had done with Jimmy Stewart. But as the 1940’s rolled around, the actor began to spread his wings and fought typecasting demonstrating a knack for musicals and roles where he played good-hearted heroes. Luckily he did not forget about the kind of characters that made him a household name, and before he left the gangster genre, he gave audiences, the most ruthless and evil gangster he had ever played in the classic, White Heat.

In this picture Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a murderous sociopath with an unhealthy emotional attachment to his mother. When his heist of a mail train goes wrong Jarrett finds himself pursued by the full power of federal law enforcement. Realizing running is futile, Jarrett comes up with the clever idea of confess to a smaller robbery which happened at the same time, giving himself an alibi while ensuring he had a much lighter prison sentence. The Feds do not give up on this case so easily and send Agent Hank Fallon undercover in the prison as inmate Vic Pardo in order to get close to Jarrett and find evidence to nail him for the train robbery. While Fallon endears himself to the gangster, his assignment gets out of control when Cody Jarrett’s mother dies causing him to break out of prison along with his gang. The straight-laced G-Man finds himself reluctantly aiding a deranged madman bent on revenge and reestablishing his criminal enterprise. With law enforcement in close pursuit, Jarrett is eventually cornered in a chemical plant where a violent gun battle ensues, leading to the iconic ending of a completely mad Cagney on a globe shaped chemical container surrounded by an inferno proclaiming, “Made it Ma! Top of the world!!!!”


In the decades that followed White Heat has become one of the most revered crime films in cinematic history for good reason. It is an incredibly intense film which still shocks modern audiences with its levels of violence and the power of James Cagney’s performance. Given that it had been almost a decade since Cagney had played one of his infamous gangster roles, he pulled out all of the stops to reassure everyone that he had not lost his touch and had only gotten better. The character he crafted in Cody Jarrett is nothing short of terrifying, the audience knows he is out of his mind and but is unsure of what he is going to do next creating a thick tension over every scene. For proof of this look no further than the moment he learns of his mother’s death while he’s in prison. The audience can only sit there with a feeling of dread knowing that however he reacts it is not going to go well. In the hands of a lesser actor this character would have been seen as over-the-top but Cagney knew how far to go with the character keeping him right on the edge of madness in a way that captivated audiences rather than turning them off. Make no mistake the rest of the cast is top-notch in the picture as well, particularly Virginia Mayo as his long suffering wife and Edmond O’Brien as the undercover Fed hoping to take down Cody, and their reactions to Jarrett’s mayhem makes his actions that much more powerful.

The contributions of director Raoul Walsh should not be overlooked either as his work behind the camera is a major reason White Heat is so well remembered. In creating the visual language of this movie, Walsh created a style which perfectly balanced the fast pace of a traditional Warner Brothers gangster movie with the edgy shadow drenched style of a film noir. Every shot is perfectly set up as the camera takes an unflinching look at the crimes being committed. White Heat is one of the rare movies which holds a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for a good reason. The picture is a masterpiece which stands as one of the best crime films ever made.