White Heat


Directed by Raoul Walsh, starring James Cagney, Edmond O’Brien, and Virginia Mayo

A compelling film. Meaning: I can watch it any time, jump into it at any point. Cagney is usually compelling. Never more so as the aging gangster with a mother fixation. It would be interesting to compare how we respond to Cody Jarrett compared to, say, Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971).

Three signature scenes involve Cody’s mother, played by Margaret Wycherly (she was Gary Cooper’s mother in Sergeant York).

  1. Cody Jarrett suffers periodic seizures, something in between a migraine and epileptic fit. When it happens, his mother takes him to a room where she rubs his head and soothes him, At this juncture, Jarrett sits in his mom’s lap as she gives a pep talk to get out with the others and not show further weakness.

Ma Jarrett: It’s these mountains, Cody. It’s not good for ya. Cold all the time. Can’t breathe air. Let’s get out, Son.
Cody: I’m all right now.
Ma: Is it going?
Cody: Yeah.
Ma: Are you sure?
Cody: Yeah….it’s like having a red hot buzz-saw inside my head.

  1. Cody is in prison in Illinois, a two-year sentence. Hundreds of prisoners march into the mess and sit for lunch. A new prisoner sits at Cody’s table. Cody asks the convict next to him to pass down the question: How is Ma Jarrett. The question is passed down; the answer comes back. His mother is dead. Cody bows his head for a moment, as if he is about to have a head pain, then jumps onto the table and runs toward the center of the hall. Four guards try to stop him and get socked. Finally, four guards grab him and carry him out, Cody kicking and yelling all the way. It seems he has snapped. The warden is ready to write his ticket to the insane asylum.
  2. Then the famous ending. Atop the gas storage tank. The four hundred thousand dollar heist has collapsed. Cody runs deep into the plant and climbs the spiral stairs of the steel bulbous tanks. Mortally wounded he shoots into the tanks. He shouts: “Made it Ma! Top of the World!” A great explosion. His mother always told him this. The woman behind the man, supplying him his ambition.

One of Cody’s gang, Big Ed, moves in on Verna when Cody’s in jail.

Cody Jarrett: Big Ed, Great… Big… Ed. Know why they call him that? Because his ideas are big. Someday he’s gonna get a really big one, about me. It’ll be his last.

Ma Jarrett suspects them but (we learn later) she is killed when she confronted them. Verna shot her in the back. Later, Verna tells Cody that Big Ed shot Ma. Big Ed doesn’t have a chance. One of my favorite character actors, Steve Cochran, plays Big Ed. Cochran always played a heavy, usually with a cynical and murderous edge. One of his best roles is in Sam Peckinpah’s first film, The Deadly Companions (1961). Surprisingly, he starred in a 1957 Michelangelo Antonion’s Il Grido (The Outcry) and gave a superb performance.

A curious fact I learned from IMDb was that one of the convicts beside Cody in the prison mess hall was Jim Thorpe. Thorpe had a 20-year plus career in the movies as an extra. Nearly seventy films. His presence in White Heat is coincidental to the making of Jim Thorpe: All-American (1951), also made by Warner Brothers.


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