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White Heat
Directed by Raoul Walsh with James Cagney, Edmond O'Brien, Virginia Mayo, Margaret Wycherly and Steve Cochran, black and white, 114 minutes, 1949

A Momma's Boy You Don't Want to Cross!

Top of the World

"Made it, Ma, Top of the world"

By Carter B. Horsley

"White Heat" is a tour de force movie about a psychopath, played with indelible ferocity by James Cagney.

The 1949 film is Raoul Walsh's masterpiece as a director who got very memorable performances from his actors and created a powderkeg ending, which is  sensational.

The ending takes place at the real globular gas tank facility in Torrance, California that is as surreal and beautiful as the awesome but menacing montainous world of "Bladerunner" a generation later.  Sidney Hickox was the cinematographer.

The film was based on an article by Virginia Kellogg and Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts are credited with the brilliant screenplay. 

According to the movie's entry at, the script went through some revisions "with imput being given by some of Cagney's closest friends" adding that "Humphrey Bogart and Frank McHugh worked 'after hours' on revisions; with McHugh writing the film's opening scene."  The Wikipedia article also noted that "Cagney was unhappy with the studio's decision to hire Walsh; in part, because he requested Frank McHugh be in the film, but Warner turned this friend down in an attempt to cut costs."  [I wrote the obituary in The New York Times on Frank McHugh, a jovial character actor in the movies.] 

Here's some air

Here's "a little air!"

In his September 3, 1949 review of the film in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther noted with unusual perception and fine writing that "Mr. Cagney achieves the fascination of a brilliant bull-fighter at work, deftly engaged in the business of violence with economy and grace,"  adding that "His movements are supple and electric, his words are swift and sharp as swords and his whole manner carries the conviction of confidence, courage and power."

Talk about anti-heroes!

"If you think Mr. Cagney looked brutal when he punched Mae Clark in the face with a ripe grapefruit in 'Public Enemy' [1931]," Mr. Crowther continued, "you should see the sweet and loving things he does to handsome Virginia Mayo, who plays his low-grade wife in this film.  Or you should scan the exquisite indifference with which he 'lets a little air' into the trunk compartment of an auto in which is locked a treacherous 'friend.'"

The film's script is brilliant and succinct as when Cagney kicks someone he has just shot down the stairs and tells his associates at the bottom of the stairs, "Catch."

Calming down

Calming down

Cagney's character, Cody Jarrett, his not perfect.  His achilles heel is epileptic attacks and after one bout in front of his gang at a hide-out he curls up in his mother's lap and when he calms down has some tea before going back to show his gang he's ok.

As with all film noirs, the film's plot has its twists and turns although the wide-open spaces of the scenery, the story's ruthlessness and shock, and the dialogue cannot be contained by the traditional confines of film noir.

The movie begins with a train robbery in California where Cagney jumps onto the train's coal car as it emerges from a Southern Pacific Tunnel and tells the two engineers to stop the train.  When one of this gang mentions his name before being badly scalded the engine's steam, Cagney has no hestitation in shooting both of the engineers when one repeats his name:  You've got a good memory for names.  Too good!"

The gang gets away and retreats to its mountain hide-out, but Cagney's character, Cody Jarrett, orders a gang member to put the scalded man out of his misery.  The gang member disobeys and fires a shot into the air and later the scalded man is found frozen and dead in the mountains by Federal agents.

The gang, however, soon thereafter kill two people in a bank robbery.

Soon, Cody has a severe attack and needs to be soothed by the loving hands of his mother.

Cody's mother, played with more evil relish than the Wicked Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz ever dreamt of by the appropriately name Margaret Wycherly, finds Virginia Mayo in bed and declares "Well, if it aint' the Sleeping Beauty!"  Mayo responds "What else does a girl get to do in this bear trap?

"There's plenty you can do without wearing out the mattress," Cody's mother responds.

Mayo's character, Verna, longs for a mink coat and Cody remarks that she would "look good in a shower curtain."

She gets her mink coat, but when a federal agent recognizes's Cody's mother buying strawberries, it's time for the gang to move on.  With the Feds closing in, Cody decides to give himself for another robbery in a different state to get a shorter sentence with no death penalty.

In prison, he is befriended by a federal agent planted to learn where the money is and who was Cagney's fence.

In the prison's large mess hall, he learns that his beloved mother is dead and he goes berserk, very memorably, scattering across the top of the tables and punching out several guards before being subdued.



According to the Wikipedia article, "Jack Warner wanted the prison mess hall scene replaced for budgetary reasons, stating the 'cost of a single scene with 600 extras and only one line of dialogue would be exorbitant.'  For this reason, Warner wanted the scene shot in a chapel, but relented when 'the writers pointed out that, apart from the fact that Jarrett would [never be willingly caught in a] chapel, the whole point of the scene was to 'have a lot of noise. with rattling knives and forks and chatters, that suddenly goes completely silent when Jarrett first screams.'  The scream was improvised by Cagney, and the shock on everyone's face was real, for neither Cagney nor Walsh informed any of the extras of what was going to happen.  Warner agreed to the scene on the condition that it be shot in three houses, so 'that the extras were through by lunchtime.'"

Smoozing with his moll

Smoozing with Verna, his moll

Virginia Mayo never looked more luscious and alluring than in this movie.  Only Peggy Cummings in "Gun Crazy" and Margaret Wycherly in this film are more frighteningly evil.  It is not hard to understand how Cody could overlook Verna's greed when she turns on her "heat."  She is a truly irresistible temptress so much so that she is able to convince Cody that Steve Cochran killed his mother when, we eventually find out, she did.

Steve Cochrane and Virginia Mayo

Behind his back

Cochran's take-over of the gang was understandable given Verna's hope that his plot to have Cody killed in prison would succeed.

Chatting with his pal

Edmond O'Brien listens

What is a bit far-fetched is that Fallon, the Federal agent character played by Edmond O'Brien, would spend an indeterminant time in prison trying to befriend Cody.  It is interesting that Cody is suspicious at first and only accepts him when he saves him from Cochran's ordered killing and subsequently begs to be taken along on Cody's prison escape by saying he really misses his wife.

They escape and plan to rob a payroll at an oil plant by hiding in the "belly" of a large tanker truck that will serve as a "Trojan Horse."  O'Brien alerts the Feds and they follow the gang to the plant where a lot of the gang is shot.

Cody hustles up the spiral staircase around one of the plant's huge globular tanks.

O'Brien takes a sniper rifle and shoots him a couple of times. 

Cody staggers and then in maniacal frenzy fires his pistol downward into the tank setting off a tremendous explosion that quite literally sends him to the "Top of the World."

It is a fitting, and proper, and glorious, final finish and there can be no doubt that Cody's mother would be proud.

This film ranks 69th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films.

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