White Heat is directed by Raoul Walsh and adapted by Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts from a story suggested by Virginia Kellogg. It stars James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien, Steve Cochran & Margaret Wycherly. Music is by Max Steiner and photography by Sidney Hickox.
Cody Jarrett (Cagney) is the sadistic leader of a violent and ruthless gang of thieves. Unnervingly devoted to his mother (Wycherly) and afflicted by terrible headaches since childhood, Cody is one bad day away from being a full blown psychotic. That day is coming soon, and everyone in his way is sure to pay.
Around the time of White Heat being released, two things were evident as regards its star and its themes. One is that it had been a long time since a gangster, and a truly vicious one at that, had thrilled or frightened a cinema audience. The Production Code and a change in emotional value due to World War II had seen the genuine career gangster all but disappear. Second thing of note is that Cagney was stung by the disappointing performance of Cagney Productions. So after having left Warner Brothers in 1942, the diminutive star re-signed for the studio and returned to the genre he had almost made his own in the 30s. He of course had some say in proceedings, such as urging the makers to ensure a crime does not pay motif, but all told he needed a hit and the fit with Raoul Walsh and the psychotic Jarrett was perfect. It may not be his best acting performance, but it's certainly his most potent and arguably it's the cream of the gangster genre crop.
The inspiration for the film is mostly agreed to be the real life criminals: Ma Barker, Arthur "Doc" Barker and Francis Crowley. A point of worth being that they were all 30s criminals since White Heat very much looks and feels like a 30s movie. Cagney for sure is older (he was 50 at the time) and more rotund, but he and the film have the presence and vibrancy respectively to keep it suitably in period and in the process becoming the last of its kind. White Heat is that rare old beast that manages to have a conventional action story at its core, yet still be unique in structure and portrayal of the lead character. Neatly crafted by Walsh around four Cody Jarrett "moments" of importance, the Oedipal tones playing out between Cody and his Ma make for an uneasy experience, but even then Walsh and the team pull a rabbit out the hat by still garnering sympathy for the crazed protagonist. It sounds nutty, but it really is one of the big reasons why White Heat is the great film that it is. Another reason of course is "those" special scenes, two of which are folklore cinematic legends now. Note legend number 1 as Cody, incarcerated, receives bad news, the reaction is at once terrifying and pitiful (note the extras reaction here since they didn't know what was coming). Legend number 2 comes with "that" ending, forever quotable and as octane ignited finale's go it takes some beating.
As brilliant and memorable as Cagney is, it's not, however, a one man show. He's superbly directed by Walsh, with the great director maintaining a pace and rhythm to match Cody Jarrett's state of mind. And with Steiner (Angels With Dirty Faces/Casablanca/Key Largo) scoring with eerie strands and strains, and Hickox (The Big Sleep/To Have and Have Not) adding noir flourishes for realism and atmosphere, it's technically a very smart picture. The supporting cast in the face of Cagney's barnstorming come up with sterling work. Wycherly is glorious as the tough and tetchy Ma Jarrett and O'Brien is needed to be spot on in the film's second most important role; a role that calls for him to not only be the first man Cody has ever trusted, but also as some sort of weird surrogate mother! Mayo isn't called on to do much, but she's gorgeous and sexy and fatalistic in sheen. While Cochran holds his end up well as the right hand man getting ideas above his station.
White Heat is as tough as they come, a gritty pulsating psycho drama that has many visual delights and scenes that are still as powerful and as shocking some 60 odd years since it first hit the silver screen. What is often forgotten, when yet another clip of the brilliant ending is shown on TV, is that it's also a weird and snarky piece of film. All told, it is blisteringly hot. 10/10