Over many years of movies and movie stars there were actors and actresses who became so popular (and powerful) that they could pretty much dictate everything they wanted on their pictures. Who would direct it, who would write it, who made the costumes, who composed the music and, maybe above all, exactly who their characters were. Famous names like Olivier, Brando, Bogart, Robinson, Cooper, Gable, Stewart, Fonda, Leigh, Hepburn, Stanwyck; modern ones like Clooney, DiCaprio, Brooks, Allen, Hackman, Sutherland. You get the idea.
In the 1930s and -40s, James Cagney was among the exclusive pantheon of top Hollywood stars who commanded the largest salaries and earned an unbelievable following of motion picture fans around the world. His portrayal of gangsters – along with Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson – was looked upon with anticipation with every new movie premier. Cagney's talents also included being an extremely talented dancer (he always said that, deep down, he was a "hoofer" at heart) and an adept actor with other voices besides his own; he could speak fluent Yiddish growing up in one of New York's toughest neighborhoods. In 1942 James Cagney portrayed George M. Cohan, the famous Broadway showman, in Yankee Doodle Dandy. The movie was a block-buster. He won the Best Actor Oscar for his role.
But he and Jack Warner (of Warner Brothers Studios) did not get along and Warner hounded him mercilessly, ordered him around like a novice and would never give Cagney the respect he deserved. Cagney left Warner after Yankee Doodle Dandy exploded in popularity. Cagney formed his own production company, had four unsuccessful films and by 1948 came back to Warner Brothers.
The story of Cody Jarrett, the notorious outlaw, premiered as White Heat on September 2, 1949. It "is considered to be one of the best gangster movies of all time. In 2003, it was added to the National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress." Directed by Raoul Walsh, with an all-star cast, headed by Cagney, it included Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien, Margaret Wycherly and Steve Cochran. It featured Fred Clark, Paul Guilfoyle and Ian Macdonald.
Cody Jarrett is a dangerously deranged criminal gang leader, married to the beautiful Verna (Mayo), but mentally tied to his gangster mom, Ma Jarrett (Wycherly). His gang specializes in robberies. An informant tells the FBI that Cody is in a motel with Verna and Ma. There's a shoot-out and Cody is captured; he confesses to a lesser crime and is sent to Illinois State Prison where the feds plant an agent, Hank Fallon (O'Brien), in Cody's cell; his undercover name is Vic Pardo. Vic becomes a rare and close, trusted friend of Cody.
On the outside "Big Ed" Somers (Cochran) is about to betray Cody and steal Verna. Ed hires Roy Parker (Guilfoyle) to kill Cody in prison but that fails. Cody vows revenge as he learns that his beloved Ma has died. In one of the most famous scenes in the movies, Cody goes berserk while eating in the prison mess hall. I love watching the men who know him passing the word along that "Ma's dead" as the last man must, hesitantly, tell him the terrible news. Cody jumps up on the table and goes berserk (Cagney told only Walsh he was going to do this but all of the other actors didn't know and reacted realistically scared and surprised by Cagney's sudden movements). The prison doctor recommends Cody be transferred to a prison asylum, but Cody and Vic (his confidant now) escape and return to California. They take Parker as a hostage.
At their hideout Verna convinces Cody that Big Ed killed Ma. Cody shoots him. He also shoots Parker, held inside a car trunk by asking him if he "needs air." The man who launders their stolen money, Daniel "The Trader" Winston (Clark), comes to the hideout with a plan for robbing a refinery payroll, using an empty tanker truck as a "Trojan Horse" to get inside the refinery offices and steal the money. Vic learns of the plan and gets word to the FBI about the details. He rigs up a small radio as a signal inside the truck. At the refinery the cops are waiting.
Inside the plant offices the tanker's driver, "Bo" Creel (Macdonald), recognizes Vic Pardo as Cody, incredibly disbelieves that he was completely fooled by a cop, uses him as a hostage. The cops surround the gang, there's a shoot-out and Cody escapes, climbing to the top of a gasoline storage tank. Vic Pardo, an expert marksman, shoots Cody several times as Cody yells and shoots into the tanks, ""Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" The scene is iconic as everything explodes around him while the cops run for their lives. The refinery is engulfed in flames and smoke.
There are many stories about Cagney and Jack Warner, especially as Cagney returned to work for him. But Cagney was smart and had a lot to say about the script and production of White Heat. Cagney brought back scenes and ideas from previous successful films and his gangster character, instead of being just another criminal, became a psychopath who kills without thinking, eternally tied to his evil mother. It gave the film and the role so much for audiences to be fascinated by. 70 years later, it's still just as amazing.
For me, White Heat is a great example of late '40s' film noir but, more than that, a vehicle for the incredibly talented James Cagney. I venture to say that, no matter the role, Cagney could bring it to life – and in this case, to death – dramatically, memorably, immortally.
email this column to a friend
Comment on this Column:
|Sorry, you must be a member to add comments to columns.|
Join or Login.
Subscribe to MatchFlick Movie Reviews through RSS
Every other Thursday
My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).|
If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.|