Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts and directed by Raoul Walsh, “White Heat” is a crime caper starring James Cagney as Cody Jarrett, returning to the type of role that made him famous years prior in films such as “The Public Enemy” or “Angels with Dirty Faces”. Admittedly, if you open a gangster flick with a train heist and close it out with an explosive shootout, I’ll be there with a smile as wide as the grand canyon. As a fan of genre cinema, “White Heat” was an excellent example of everything that I love about these films. Larger than life performances combined with strong pacing and intelligent characters on both sides of the law led the film to take a few delightfully unexpected routes. Jarrett’s gang follows a strict system and those who fall behind are killed with callous and pragmatic means. The treasury agents chasing down the gang are just as clever however and constantly nipping at the gang’s heels at every turn.
We follow Jarrett as the leader of a ruthless gang as they effectively stop a train and get away with a few hundred thousand to spare. Cagney’s charismatic but highly unstable portrayal of Cody Jarrett is the diamond-cut core of the film, but the surrounding cast all gave impeccable performances that helped to buoy the film throughout. Cody was a fascinating gangster character as this role opened up the psychology of such a killer- at least as far as a film in late 1940’s America was going to explore. The volatile killer had an unusually strong connection to his mother portrayed by Margaret Wycherly in a solid role as “Ma Jarrett” who seemed by Cody’s account to have been tragically surrounded by con men her whole life. Cody’s wife Verna, played by Virginia Mayo, was an interesting sort of femme fatale- not quite the image you may be conjuring of noir films like “The Maltese Falcon” but she was seemingly caught in the mix and in-between lovers. Big Ed, played by Steve Cochran, was the subordinate gangster with big ideas of his own, including killing Cody and stealing away Verna. These two offered a few great points of interest and tension as Cody orchestrated a long con in getting sent to a prison in Springfield, Illinois for the confession of a far smaller crime that supposedly took place at the same time as the train robbery near Los Angeles. All crafted to obfuscate and disorient the cops on their trail.
John Archer was believable as Phillip Evans, the head Treasury Cop in Los Angeles chasing down the Jarrett Gang, and instrumental in organizing a tit-for-tat game of chase across the country and back. Luckily, just as Cody got sent to prison Evans calls up a friend in the agency, Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) who specializes in undercover stings by infiltrating prisons and getting close to the criminals they’re after. After a quick cover is drafted, Hank, now known as Vic Pardo, gets sent to the same cell as Cody, and inadvertently saves Cody’s life from a hit ordered from Big Ed on the outside, and is quickly indoctrinated as one of the gang. The various plot-lines and character decisions from this point on where exciting and joyfully unexpected.
“White Heat” was both nostalgic and refreshing on my first watch through. It held up a lot of the well known tropes and norms of the gangster films of the time, but this post-war thriller pulled a few fast ones and introduced a few more shades of villainous character analysis.If you’re looking for a classic black and white gangster film starring one of old Hollywood’s leading men, then give this one a look! I caught it on the Criterion Collection’s streaming service- (The Criterion Channel) and I cannot recommend that platform enough if you enjoy older (or foreign) films.
Final Score: 1 Giant Ball of Fire