Judge Steve Evans learns that a gangster's best friend is his mother.
Our reviews of TCM Greatest Gangster Films Collection: James Cagney (published September 30th, 2010) and Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics (Blu-ray) (published May 27th, 2013) are also available.
Made it, Ma!
James Cagney stars in the last classic noir of the 1940s as Cody Jarrett, a mama-obsessed psychopath on a rampage of robbery and murder. White Heat ranks among the greatest films of the genre, unfolding with shocking violence (for its day), incredible dialogue, and a plot line lifted from Sophocles.
Facts of the Case
Jarrett and his gang stage a daring daylight train robbery, murdering the railroad employees as they seize the loot. One of Jarrett's gang is mortally wounded in a freak accident during the raid. Decamping to their hideout, the robbers mull over what to do with their dying colleague. Jarrett's bug-eyed psychosis becomes obvious as he suffers a crippling seizure while arguing with an underling. But his devoted Ma (Margaret Wycherly, The Yearling), who is almost as dangerous as her grown son, comforts Cody and makes sure the gang does not see him in this compromised state. Any sign of weakness could lead to a power grab by Jarrett's associates, thieves and killers all.
Jarrett decides to take it on the lam with his sultry but duplicitous wife (Virginia Mayo, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) and calculating mother. As the cops close in, he hatches a plan to take the rap for a lesser crime committed by a hood in another state so he can avoid a death sentence for the railroad caper. His psychosis worsens in prison as undercover cop Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien) joins the inmates in an attempt to ingratiate himself with Jarrett. (Side note: A versatile character actor, O'Brien played Gringoire in the definitive 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He worked steadily during a 40-year career, collaborating with such luminaries as Cecil B. DeMille and John Frankenheimer.)
The men escape prison and plot a final heist as Jarrett creeps around town, settling scores with the double-crossers in his old gang. But stupid blunders by his colleagues, even his aging mother, allow the police to triangulate Jarrett's position and corner the gang at an oil refinery for the famous, climactic confrontation.
Under the taut direction of Walsh (High Sierra), Cagney and the rest of the cast create an indelible portrait of criminals whose honor and trust exist only at gunpoint. Today the film is best remembered for Cagney's harrowing performance as a crazed psychotic, quick with a crude quip and a volatile temper that finds release only in murder. Cagney was a three-time best-actor Oscar nominee, winning only for Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1943. That film and White Heat represent his most enduring work, followed by The Public Enemy, a positively feral film in which Cagney famously mashes a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face.
As Cody's morally flexible wife Verna, Virginia Mayo isn't quite a femme fatale in the classic mold, although her shifty opportunism keeps viewers guessing about her motives and schemes. Margaret Wycherly's performance as Ma Jarrett is a small treasure of the cinema. Her beady eyes, practically shimmering with madness, provide the first of many clues that Cody's deranged state has its origins in heredity.
There is much more to amaze the first-time viewer. The violence is outrageous for a film made during the censorial reign of the Hays Code. The dialogue drips with venomous sarcasm. And in the 56 years since the film's release, no other mainstream movie has explored madness and Oedipal obsession with such grim relentlessness. White Heat weaves the stuff of Greek tragedy into the hardest noir of the 1940s.
The White Heat screenplay by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts was inspired by crime writer Virginia Kellogg's short story. She earned an Academy Award nod for Best Story, the film's lone nomination (it's unclear why Goff and Roberts were omitted). And what fabulous writing it is: Characters bristle and bark at each other in a spectacular outpouring of verbiage that was simply unheard-of in 1949 and remains amazing today. A taste of that dialogue:
Gangster: You wouldn't kill me in cold blood, would ya?
Warner unleashes White Heat with a superb set of extras. Leonard Maltin introduces Warner Night at the Movies 1949, an enjoyable time capsule featuring a newsreel, a comedy short, a Bugs Bunny cartoon ("Homeless Hare"), theatrical trailers, and the feature attraction. Like the Warner Night at the Movies features on other discs, the selections can be played individually or in succession, which approximates the theatrical experience more than half a century ago when a ticket cost 25 cents, audiences actually got their money's worth, and they didn't have to sit through asinine commercials.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At a fast-paced 113 minutes, fans will wish this movie might unspool for another hour or more.
White Heat is a genuine noir classic that warrants no negative remark. The print and sound are pristine, the quality extras are comprehensive, and Warner packages the disc in a proper keep case at an affordable price.
Warner acquits itself with a fabulous package of added-value content accompanying a brilliant film. Cody Jarrett's fate is already sealed in film immortality: "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!"
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Leonard Maltin Hosts Warner Night at the Movies 1949
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