Part 1 of 2
It starts with a train robbery that feels like something out of a western movie. In fact, much of WHITE HEAT seems anachronistic in the beginning. Even the gang hideout, which we see after the robbery, feels like one of James Cagney’s earlier gangster pictures from the early 1930s. But I think audiences liked him in these kinds of roles and were willing to go along with it and suspend disbelief.
The train robbery leads to the blinding of one of the gang members, when some white heat from the locomotive sprays directly into his eyes. It’s clear he will never fully recover. At the hideout, he is kept around out of pity. It is also clear that ringmaster Cody Jarrett, Cagney’s character, has deeply rooted psychological issues. There’s an interesting moment where Cody suffers a migraine which he says feels like a ‘red hot buzzsaw.’ Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly), whose first name is never given, quickly takes him to another room and massages the back of his neck. She then gives him liquor to regain his strength. She won’t have her boy showing any signs of weakness in front of the other men.
The other men include a guy named Big Ed (Steve Cochran) who is sweet on Cody’s wife Verna (Virginia Mayo). We can tell Cody and Ed will have a huge conflict as the story plays out. During the scene where Ma massages Cody, we get the first uttering of the phrase ‘top of the world.’ This will be repeated several times throughout the picture. Later, after Cody has sufficiently regained his strength and is on top of the world again, we see some of his trademark brutality towards Verna. Especially in a scene where she’s admiring a fur coat in a mirror and he kicks a stool out from under her.
Ma is the driving force behind Cody and the group. It is revealed Cody’s old man died years ago, and so did Cody’s only brother. Now it’s just Ma and Cody, plus Cody’s pals. A storm comes in and they move out. As they leave the cabin, Cody tells one of the guys to kill their blind partner, since he’s of no more use to them and will slow down their getaway. The blind man’s life, however, is temporarily spared, though he is found dead outside in the storm a short time later. More importantly, the one who was supposed to kill him has left fingerprints on the plastic wrapping of a cigarette pack. This gives a police detective (John Archer) a lead in tracking down the Jarrett gang.
In the next part the men have scattered across the countryside, and Cody is holed up with Ma and Verna at a motor court. Ma goes to buy strawberries one afternoon and as she leaves the market, she’s tailed by the detective and his associate. It leads to a shoot-out at the motel, with the detective gunned down. He will be okay, but Cody, Ma and Verna have taken off. There’s an interesting scene where the Jarretts hide at a movie theater, while a current Warner Brothers film (TASK FORCE) plays. It’s one of the few references that this story takes place in 1949.
While the movie plays, Cody devises a plan to confess to a robbery back in the midwest, which he didn’t do. It will carry a light prison sentence and make it impossible for him to be connected to the train robbery or having shot the detective.
In the next sequence of the film, Cody’s in prison in the midwest, where he is befriended by an undercover cop (Edmond O’Brien) called Vic Pardo. Meanwhile, Ma and Verna are living in California. Ed and the other men are around, and Ed’s carrying on with Verna. Ma goes to visit Cody and tells him what’s going on, just after Ed has had some guy in the prison work room try to kill Cody. Cody’s eager to get out and teach Ed a lesson. Ma says she’ll take care of Ed, but this leads to her off-screen death.
The Ma Jarrett character is written out at the one-hour mark. We are denied a chance to see her killed off. After her demise, Cody becomes aimless without her. Ma’s death creates an emptiness in Cody and in the rest of the story. There is a brief voice-over of Ma in Cody’s head, and some occasional references. But losing Wycherly’s expert characterization halfway into the story hurts the film.
One good thing that comes from Ma’s death is a subsequent scene in the prison lunch room. It happens when Cody has just been told Ma died. He goes completely berserk. This has to be one of the best scenes Cagney ever played. There’s so much psychological pain that Cody’s experiencing at this point. He’s soon diagnosed as a raging lunatic.
As a result of Cody’s diagnosis, the police detective decides to spring Pardo from prison, since they can no longer get anything on the train robbery. If Cody’s declared legally insane, nothing will be admissible, and they won’t be able to prosecute him. But Pardo’s become close to Cody, and Cody uses his time in a straitjacket to devise a way out of prison with help from some of the others, including Pardo. He may be insane, but he intends to escape and get revenge on Ed. So Pardo stays on the case to thwart these plans.
In the next sequence Verna’s in San Bernardino with Ed, and we learn she’s the one who killed Ma by shooting Ma in the back. Supposedly to help Ed. But we can be sure Verna had her own reasons to eliminate Ma. They both learn Cody’s out of prison and will catch up to them. When Verna tries to leave in the middle of the night she is apprehended by Cody and stopped. She quickly changes sides and helps Cody kill Ed.
At this point, we’ve gone beyond the traditional gangster picture into noir territory. Verna is a true femme fatale; and in addition to her cold-blooded behavior, we have Cody’s escalating viciousness which knows no bounds.
Pardo and the others are with them, and there will be a new heist. This time, they will rob a chemical plant in Long Beach. Not sure why they couldn’t rob another train or a bank. While they prepare for the next heist, Cody walks around at night talking to Ma, which he tells Pardo. Pardo’s become a substitute companion for him the way Ma was. And we see how totally useless Verna is, for the most part, in Cody’s life.
There is a great scene, however, where Verna and Cody get “romantic” (at least their version of romance). She hops on Cody’s back and he is going to take her upstairs. She is trying to act like a classy dame. It’s a funny scene that Mayo does well.
The next day we see the truck they will use for the heist at the chemical plant. There’s an allusion to the Trojan horse story, since Cody and the other guys will hide inside the truck and get into the chemical plant that way. Pardo is riding in the cab, and while stopping at a gas station to fix the radiator, he tries to get a message to his boss the detective by scrawling something across the men’s room mirror with soap. The detective does get the message a short time later; he and other policemen will be waiting for Cody at the chemical plant. But Cody might be too smart for them.
We have finally arrived at the film’s climactic sequence. Verna gets picked up by the cops outside the plant, and she tries to cut a deal to sell Cody up the river and save her own skin, which fails. Inside the plant, Cody learns Pardo’s a cop named Fallon. Cagney has some of his most memorable dialogue during this exchange, when it dawns on him he’s been working with an undercover law enforcement agent.
“A copper? A copper! How do you like that boys, a copper! And his name is Fallon, and we went for it! I went for it. Treated him like a kid brother. And I was going to split 50-50 with a copper!” Incidentally, this dialogue can be heard in Madonna’s nostalgic song ‘White Heat’ on her True Blue album from 1986. At the time, the singer was under contract to Warner Brothers records.
The final scenes of the movie have the detective and his men lobbing tear gas at Cody who refuses to surrender peaceably. Cody becomes even more vicious, shooting more cops and running to stairs which he climbs to the top of some chemical tanks. Cody is now literally on top of the world. His last victim is a member of his group named Riley who was giving himself up. Meanwhile, Pardo/Fallon has joined the other cops and he has a rifle he’s now firing at Cody. Actor Edmond O’Brien really gets into this scene. Maybe he was tired of Cagney’s superior attitude while filming? He’s eager to bring him down. At one point, when Pardo/Fallon has hit Cody with a bullet, he says “what’s holding him up?” since Cody is still going.
The answer is Ma. Ma’s the one that’s been holding him up, even in death. Cody then shoots off a round of bullets and hits a tank that starts a fire. This is the end for him. Where we get that famous closing speech, his epitaph: “Made it Ma! Top of the World!” It’s an atomic ending for a very deluded man. However, as Cody dies, the last line of the film is given to Pardo/Fallon who intones, like a Greek chorus, that Cody finally got to the top of the world and it blew up in his face.
Part 2 of 2
WHITE HEAT is one that I hadn’t seen in a while but had seen three times and always enjoyed. I absolutely love Warner Brothers studio productions of the Golden Age. So many scenes presented with an exclamation point for dramatic impact. Max Steiner’s thundering scores make sure every human body in the theater is wide awake and bushy tailed.
This title follows along the some familiar roadways as previous Warner crime dramas like G-MEN and, intriguingly enough, the later six-legged invasion THEM! Regarding the latter film (which, by the way, features the same cinematographer, Sidney Hickox), we may have giant ants invading the LA sewers to hatch their eggs instead of James Cagney’s Arthur Cody Jarrett hatching a “Trojan Horse” oil tanker in order to rob the payroll at a chemical plant, but there are some striking similarities.
Because neither giant ant nor Cody is an easy villain to subdue, great patience and concentration of a few experts, along with the full force of either the FBI or U.S. military, is needed to bring him (or them!) down and make sure that Crime Does Not Pay. It is also rather eerie just how similar this seemingly straight forward gangster picture not only resembles THEM! but also two Ray Harryhausen dinosaur movies also made for the same studio. All end with the W-B shield and “The End” with our star or beast engulfed in some medieval hellfire to suggest he is returning to nether regions of the Earth’s core he came from.
So… is Cody an “on top of the world” mobster or a monster? Clearly his kind was inspired by some of the atrocities of the Third Reich. Note the very important line spoken by him in response to Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) who is still pretending he might get shot even after he reveals himself to be a cop setting Cody up: “They (Cops) won’t shoot one of their own.”
Cody kills his own without any remorse or sympathy. Within the first fifteen minutes, one fellow robber gets badly burned in the face and hands by train steam and, although he is bandaged up without any hospital aid, Cody orders him to be shot out of his misery. (Not that he is obeyed since nobody in this movie, regardless of which side of the law they reside, is quite as cold blooded as Cody.) He later shoots bullet holes through a car trunk containing a still living body just so that the victim “can have more air.”
As much as I love Cagney here and this is arguably one of his greatest performances, he does overdo it at times and occasionally comes off like some Disney cartoon villain ready to morph into a dragon. Don’t get me wrong. There are some great emotional scenes of depth here like the always shown in movie compilations sequence in the prison dining room when he learns of his mother’s death. Yet he can be TOO quick witted and trigger happy that one sometimes wonders if he is really human.
Speaking of Mother, Margaret Wycherly does a good job in her role even if she doesn’t quite resemble Cody in any way as a family member. She is sweet, but coy, and supposedly is based on “Ma” Barker. We are hinted by the experts analyzing Cody’s history on the other side of the law that he often concocted bogus migraines in order to steal Mother’s attention and distract others, but this story detail is a trifle wacky even for enthusiastic me. I do greatly enjoy the running joke involving her need to get her beloved son strawberries at the market all of the time… as Verna states with great sarcasm.
This is my all time favorite Virginia Mayo movie, since she has more fun as Verna than she does in any Sam Goldwyn production featuring Danny Kaye or Dana Andrews. So many scene stealing moments, like the way she spits out her gum after kissing Cody. Obviously she is greatly undernourished here and can’t keep her passions in check while Cody is in the pokey.
She moves on to Big Ed, whom Steve Cochran plays, as if he is the most well-endowed member of the gang. Yet once Cody returns, he is doomed because Verna still must side with her top stallion even if she sometimes fears him and he does, after all, sport the fastest gun. I also like how she squeals in delight as he carries her into the bedroom in a scene not too long after Big Ed’s demise as if to say to us inquiring viewers “Ed?… who was he?”
Although Cody seems obsessed with his mother, it is wife Verna who ultimately manages the controls in his cranium. Note that she is not the one who dies in this movie; just is arrested and denied any more fun. She is also responsible in aiding Big Ed in getting Mother killed and Cody still never finds out! Then again, when he raises his hand at one point, he insists that he never would hurt her… and he never seems to have cause to, even if he may push her off the stool at times.
Underneath her restless fashion plate persona, she constantly gets him into trouble. Key point of interest: early in the movie, Cody tells another to “to keep away from that radio.” Yet constantly bored Verna needs her big band music to entertain her and Cody must give in… and Hank is all too eager to fix the radio his way… so that every federal agent can find them all.
I do find Edmund O’Brien is a trifle dull playing Vic Pardo/Hank Fallon, but the script and all of action make his character so interesting that it doesn’t really matter who plays him. Heck, he and Fred Clark could have easily switched roles. My favorite scene from an acting perspective is the gas station restroom mirror sequence and his instant covering of a mirror note to the cops with his sports coat. He also gives a surprisingly cheeky criticism about the dirty mirror to the station owner as Cody looks clueless.
Also cast, John Archer and Wally Cassell give adequate supporting roles, the former as the man behind Hank’s infiltration into Cagney’s corner.
Director Raoul Walsh’s career spans pretty far back into the teens and it is fitting that the ex-actor who played John Wilkes Booth jumping on the stage after shooting Lincoln in THE BIRTH OF A NATION would also supervise the opening train heist much like some Tom Mix or Buster Keaton spectacular of yesteryear. Then again, this was just another action-packed feather to his cap and Warners was already blessed with previous hits from him like THE ROARING TWENTIES, THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, HIGH SIERRA, DESPERATE JOURNEY, etc. Both he and cinematographer Sidney Hickox handled some key westerns of importance and the great outdoors are put to good use in a genre that most other directors and studios would have made more indoors-y by comparison.
WHITE HEAT may currently be viewed on YouTube.