Masterpieces of American Cinema: White Heat (1949):

Warner (First National Picture)

One of the fastest, toughest, and best crime-gangster films Hollywood has ever made, Raoul Walsh’s “White Heat” is the director’s masterpiece.

The movie reflects the anxieties and tensions of its period (late 1940s) through its portrait of the complex and troubled life of one criminal. Walsh shows what an excellent, still vastly underestimated, director he is, when it comes to smooth storytelling, taut pacing, exciting visuals, and great acting from the entire ensemble.

James Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a homicidal, paranoid mamma’s boy, the leader of a gang of train robbers.  Escaping after as daring train heist, in which one of the gang is burned, Cody Jarrett and his bunch, which includes his mother and his wife, hide out in an old house before heading out under the cover of a storm.  Though T-Men are on his trail, they can’t get close to the smart, shifty man, who knows how to manipulate both legit and illegitimate worlds.

Frustrated by their failed efforts, the police plant Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) as a “roper” (a detective who works from the inside), to be a cellmate with Cody. Meanwhile, Cody turns state’s evidence in a minor holdup case so that he can hide in prison for protection.

Cody suffers from headaches, which gradually escalate into seizures and fist, when he is in distress. We learn that when he was a boy, he faked headaches in order to draw his mother’s attention, and then when he grew up they became intolerably real.  

Despite those headaches, and continually going berserk from inherent insanity, Cody and Hank (pretending to be his friend) successfully execute a jailbreak.  Their next job is the holdup of the payroll office of a chemical plant.  Hank informs the T-Men, who killed the members of the gang, one by one.

The movie unfolds as a Greek tragedy, with strong touches of Freudian psychology in the text as well as subtext.

Cagney graphically demonstrates Jarrett’s mother fixation when, after one of his epileptic-style seizures, he allows her to sit him in her lap and soothe him, in a startling, original and deviant scene.  In the film’s most memorable image, Cody’s own doom is sealed atop a gasoline tank, but not before exclaiming the indelible line, “Top of the World, Ma.”

At the top of his form, Cagney again shows what a commanding star power he possesses.   A primal, excessive but compelling picture, “White Heat” benefits from a terrific cast, in addition to Cagney as the psychopathic gangster. Margaret Wycherly, still best known for playing Gary Cooper’s mother in Hawks’ “Sergeant York,” is excellent as the “mother from hell,” a woman who drives her son to crime; her death makes him go berserk.

Virginia Mayo plays Jarrett’s sluttish wife, who cheats on him with another gang member, Big Ed (Steve Cochran).  As a result, Cody murders Ed and wins back his wife whom he abuses physically and mentally.

Edmond O’Brien (Supporting Actor Oscar winner for the 1954 “Barefoot Contessa”) plays a police informant who shares a cell with Jarrett and later leads to his demise. John Archer is effective as the FBI agent on the madman’s tail.

The prison sequence, where Jarrett hears of his mother’s murder, is one of the film’s most charged moments. And the final image, shot atop an actual oil refinery in Torrance, California, in which the deranged Jarrett hides atop a huge tank containing inflammable gas, calling out his warped triumph to his dead mother about reaching “the top of the world” at last, before going up in flames, may be one of the most memorable images in American film history


End Note

Cagney’s character was reportedly based on the notorious gangster Arthur “Doc” Barker, and Wycherly’s on the equally infamous “Ma” Barker, the alleged catalyst for his criminal exploits.

The figure of Ma Barker has inspired a number of gangster films, both exploitation and more serious one.


Cody Jarrett (James Cagney)

Verna Jarrett (Virginia Mayo)

Hank Fellon, Vic Pardo (Edmond O’Brien)

Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly)

“Big” Ed Somers (Steve Cochran)

Philip Evans (John Archer)

Giovanni “Cotton” Valletti (Wally Cassell)

Fred Clark/The Trader (Daniel Winston)



Produced by Louis F. Edelman

Directed by Raoul Walsh

Screenplay: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, based on the story by Virginia Kellog.

Script supervisor: Irva Mae Ross.

Camera: Edward Carrere

Art Direction: Fred  M. Maclean

Editing: Owen Marks

Sound: Lelsie Hewitt

Score: Max Steiner

Costumes: Leah Rhodes





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