James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) is a violent, pyschopathic crook who's prone to stress headaches and dotes on his mother (Margaret Wycherly), herself a cunning and ruthless criminal and the matriarch of his gang. When Cody pleads guilty to a theft charge to avoid being convicted of an unrelated and much more serious crime, he thinks he's on easy street. In fact, his troubles are just beginning: the law plants an undercover agent (Edmond O'Brien) in prison with Cody to gain his trust, and on the outside, his long-suffering wife (Virginia Mayo) develops a bit of a wandering eye. When he receives some bad news about his mother, he loses the already-tentative hold he had on his emotions... and when that happens to Cody Jarrett, the results cannot be pretty.
James Cagney was perhaps an unlikely candidate to become Hollywood's all-time quintessential tough guy: a small man with mild Irish features, he started his show business career as a vaudeville dancer. Memorable roles in gangster films like The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), however, established Cagney as a cocky, swaggering hothead in the mind of the public, and he embodied the violent roles with relish. By the early 1940s, however, gangster pictures were going out of style, and Cagney was looking to change his image. His portrayal of legendary showman George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) gave him a chance to show off his song and dance skills and won him the Best Actor Oscar, and throughout the 1940s he focused on making boosterish war films. Then in 1949, when he was almost 50 years old, Cagney returned to the genre that made him famous for White Heat, a milestone in the history of crime thrillers featuring perhaps the most frightening character the old tough guy had ever played.
The 5'6" Cagney had a knack for making his unassuming appearance work for him. Like Joe Pesci's Mafia characters today, Cagney's outlaw characters often seemed to be compensating for something, as if they'd been forced to develop hard shells of hostility and overconfidence as a defense mechanism against the world. Nowhere is this more true than in White Heat: as the Oedipal, psychologically screwed-up Jarrett, Cagney creates a figure of such deep-rooted insecurity and anger that even the members of his gang are afraid of what he'll do when he loses control. White Heat stands today as a fine example of the gangster genre and one of Jimmy Cagney's finest performances.
Points to ponder:
- Jim Thorpe, the famed Native American multi-sport athlete, has a small role in this film as a prison inmate. As if being an Olympic gold medalist, pentathlete, decathlete, professional baseball player, and professional football player wasn't enough, Thorpe also dabbled in motion pictures, mostly appearing as Indians in bit parts in Westerns. White Heat was one of his final roles before his death in 1953.