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Brutal, psychotic criminal Cody Jarrett trusts no one, least of all his unfaithful wife Verna and overly ambitious right-hand man Ed Sommers; no one, that is, except his equally criminal mother, the only one who can soothe the blinding migraines that plague him. Sent to jail on a charge he fakes to avoid conviction for the more serious crimes of train robbery and murder, Cody takes into his gang a smalltime crook named Vic Pardo, who is in reality undercover cop Hank Fallon, sent to infiltrate the Jarrett gang. Eventually Cody, Pardo and several others escape from prison and regroup for futher criminal activities. But after a botched payroll-robbery at an oil refinery, Cody learns that Pardo is a special agent and tries to kill him.
An exciting, dynamic film in its own right, White Heat also stands out as the flaming finale to the era of stark, fast-paced crime films made famous by Warner Brothers and James Cagney (among other stars) from the 1930s on, films in which the focus was on the often violent but charismatic gangster rather than the law enforcement officials who hunt him. It was also the apotheosis of Cagney's brilliant career, a kind of summing up of the memorable outlaw characters he had created.
White Heat, then, is a chance to catch Cagney one last time as the no-holds barred gangster he created in such pictures as The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). Here, however, the character has been pushed to the extreme, and the progression to Cody Jarrett can be traced through a trio of gangster films made by director Raoul Walsh, of which this was the last. In The Roaring Twenties (1939), Cagney's criminal is seen in the context of history and society, a man whose ambition and drive is put to service on the wrong side of the law by the circumstances of time and place. In High Sierra (1941), Walsh cast Humphrey Bogart as Roy "Mad Dog" Earle, a troubled man on the run, the gangster as the last individual in an increasingly soulless world. With White Heat the archetype is pushed to the very edge, depicted as a vicious man gripped by insanity. It's fitting that the image Cagney was so identified with should go out with such a bang.
The spectacular ending aside, the most famous scene in White Heat is undoubtedly the one in which Jarrett gets the news in prison of his mother's death. The news is passed down from inmate to inmate at the prison mess hall tables until it finally reaches Jarrett, who explodes into psychotic grief, staggering around the room landing punches on everyone who gets in his way while letting out a kind of strangled, primal cry. Cagney was once asked by a reporter if he had to "psych" himself up for the scene. Cagney responded, "You don't psych yourself up for these things, you do them," reiterating his very non-Method philosophy that working on inward emotional motivation is a waste of time leading to a performance solely for the actor himself. According to Cagney, an actor shouldn't psych himself up to be the character, he should simply understand the character and play it for the audience. His only preparation for the scene, he later said, was remembering a visit as a youngster to see a friend's uncle who was in a psychiatric hospital. "My God, what an education," he said. "The shrieks, the screams of those people under restraint. I remembered those cries, saw that they fitted, and I called on my memory to do as required."
Director: Raoul Walsh
Producer: Louis F. Edelman
Screenplay: Virginia Kellogg (story), Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts (script)
Cinematographer: Sidney Hickox
Editor: Owen Marks
Art Director: Edward Carrere
Original Music: Max Steiner
Cast: James Cagney (Cody Jarrett), Virginia Mayo (Verna Jarrett), Edmond O'Brien (Vic Pardo/Hank Fallon), Margaret Wycherly (Ma Jarrett), Steve Cochran (Big Ed Somers), John Archer (Philip Evans).
BW-114m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
by Rob Nixon