Director: Raoul Walsh
Production: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.; black and white: 35mm, running time: 114 minutes. Released 2 September 1949. Filmed in Warner Bros. studios; final episode filmed in Torrence, California.
Producer: Louis F. Edelman; screenplay: Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, from a story by Virginia Kellogg; photography: Sid Hickox; editor: Owen Marks; sound: Leslie G. Hewitt; art director: Edward Carrere; music: Max Steiner; special effects: Roy Davidson and H. F. Koenekamp; costume designer: Leah Rhodes.
Cast: James Cagney ( Cody Jarrett ); Virginia Mayo ( Verna Jarrett ); Edmond O'Brien ( Hank Fallon/Vic Pardo ); Margaret Wycherly ( Ma Jarrett ); Steve Cochran ( Big Ed Somers ); John Archer ( Phillip Evans ); Wally Cassell ( Cotton Valetti ); Fred Clark ( Trader ); Ford Rainey ( Zuckie Hommell ); Fred Coby ( Happy Taylor ); G. Pat Collins ( Reader ); Mickey Knox ( Het Kohler ); Paul Guilfoyle ( Roy Parker ); Robert Osterloh ( Tommy Ryley ); Ian MacDonald ( Bo Creel ); Ray Montgomery ( Trent ); Marshall Bradford ( Chief of Police ).
Goff, Ivan, and Ben Roberts, White Heat , edited by Patrick McGilligan, Madison, Wisconsin, 1984.
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* * *
One of the toughest, most hard-bitten crime films of the 1940s, White Heat stands at the crux between the 1930s gangster movie and the post-war film noir . At the center of the film is gang leader Cody Jarrett, a cold-blooded killer who runs his gang of thieves with an iron fist and a blazing pistol. As Jarrett, James Cagney gives one of the most maniacal, yet complex performances of his masterful career, harking back to the tragically ambitious mobster he played in Public Enemy , but adding the noir -ish twist of psychopathy to the character. The white heat of the title refers in part to the debilitating headaches Cody suffers; he describes them as feeling like a buzzsaw in his brain. Jarrett's migraine attacks and insane rages clearly equate his mental condition and his sociopathic profession; yet the film plays out Cody's psychosis quite astutely in the determinant relationship of the film—his perversely oedipal attachment to his mother. Although accompanied by his voluptuous (and ultimately duplicitous) bride, Cody ignores her in favour of Ma Jarrett, a hard-nosed old woman who is mentor, advisor and comforter to her only son, and who never leaves his side until he is taken to prison. Significantly, only she seems capable of seeing Cody's migraines.
Ostensibly, it is Edmond O'Brien, as police agent Hank Fallon, who plays the hero of the film, going undercover in prison to gain Jarrett's confidence and lead him to the gas chamber. Exploiting Jarrett's psychological weaknesses, Fallon manages to partially fill the emotional void left when Cody finds out his mother has been killed (the scene that provides the film's emotional peak—upon hearing the news, Jarrett wreaks havoc in a tour-de-force mad rage in the prison mess hall). Curiously, the vulnerability displayed by Jarrett—psychopathic and cold-blooded as he may be—makes the betrayal of his friendship by the bland, emotionless Fallon seem utterly reprehensible, no matter what side of the law he represents.
As directed by Raoul Walsh, the most accomplished craftsman working at Warner Brothers, White Heat never succumbs to heavy psychologism, but remains a lean and powerful, unrelentingly fast-paced film—the epitome of classical Hollywood filmmaking. Characteristic of Walsh, the film's mise-en-scène is filled with flourishes of camera movement, cutting and composition seamlessly constructed so as to avoid the "artiness" of more expressionistic films noir . Such classicism at the service of metaphor is nowhere better demonstrated than in the intercutting of the churning machinery of the prison workshop with close-ups of Jarrett suffering one of his disabling headaches. The sense of locale evoked by Walsh, as atmospheric in this film as in his renowned High Sierra , is impeccable and quite contemporary, making imaginative use of such settings as tourist courts and drive-in movie theaters. The signs of modernity are everywhere (most obviously in the "scientific" surveillance techniques used by the police to track Jarrett in his final caper) and add to the sense that the tragic figure of the gangster has outlived his day.
It is this sense of a modern world no longer concerned with the individual that finally lends White Heat its most biting, film noir edge, adding a thoroughly chilling level to Jarrett's self-immolation in the film's final moments. Perched atop a refinery oil drum, engaged in a hopeless gun battle with the police, and realizing his betrayal by Fallon, Jarrett fires his pistol into the drum, shouting, "Top of the world, Ma!" The white-hot explosion that follows not only marks Jarrett's ascension to the tragic, but equates his madness with the end of the world, announcing the definitive entry of the crime film into the atomic age.