When the production team on White Heat first met, they asked themselves how to make James Cagney’s character the toughest, most menacing gangster ever filmed. Cagney said he told them to “make him nuts.”
Cody Jarrett was a fearless robber and sadistic murderer with no conscience. He had a seizure disorder that dropped him to the floor with sudden headaches “like a hot buzz saw going through my head.” He had a mother fixation, and his father, also a robber and murderer, had died in a mental hospital.
He tried to fulfill his mother’s dream for him to get to the “top of the world.” Lovers of Hollywood gangsters remember the iconic conclusion of White Heat, where Cody makes it to the top of his morally inverted world. At the top of a giant tank in a plant full of explosive gas tanks, surrounded by G-men with no hope of escape, he shouts, “Come and get me, Copper,” knowing they won’t shoot and risk blowing up the whole refinery.
Then, he stands on top of the tank, shouts “top of the word, Ma,” shoots into the tank, and blows up in a series of chemical blasts and mushroom clouds.
It’s in every anthology of highlights from Cagney movies and gangster movies.
White Heat was released in 1949, at the height of the Hays Code, the censorship rules Hollywood adopted voluntarily to fend off government censorship. So the movie’s most violent, graphic murder and mayhem could not be shown on screen:
- A member of Cody’s gang gets scalded by steam during a train robbery. At their hideout, Cody postpones taking him to a doctor. When the gang abandons the hideout, Cody tells another robber to go back in and put the dying man out of his misery. The crook shoots into the ceiling, promises to send someone back, and leaves with the gang. Later, one cop tells another that the man froze to death.
- Cody executes a traitor in the gang by hiding him in the trunk of the car, and shooting him through the closed lid. We see Cody shoot the gun, and the holes in the car.
- Other murders are Hollywood murders: bang bang, and the victim falls down but does not bleed or show pain.
- Nobody dies in the film’s most violent scene. In the prison dining room, Cody is told that his mother is dead. He goes violently crazy, attacks five guards, and is finally subdued with clubs and wrestled into a strait jacket.
The crooked, cold-blooded, and warped gangster has many personality and psychological flaws, but is tragically and ultimately betrayed by the stupidity of his closest accomplices (a right-hand man gang member and even his criminal mother when she purchases strawberries), and by his trusted cell-mate/friend who is actually an undercover cop.
The film’s screenplay by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts was suggested by a story of the same name by Virginia Kellogg. She received an Academy Award nomination for Best Story – the film’s only nomination. The film was inspired by the real-life gangster Arthur “Doc” and his mother Ma Barker, from a suggestion by star Cagney himself to the writers.
White Heat was also Cagney’s last true gangster movie. Never Steal Anything Small was a musical spoof of the genre, and Love Me or Leave Me, a more serious musical with Doris Day, was about the gangster’s love, sponsorship, and attempt to control a gifted nightclub singer.
In later years, Cagney regarded White Heat with a combination of pride and regret. While satisfied with his own performance, he tended to dismiss the picture as a “cheap melodrama.” Seen today, White Heat stands as one of the classic crime films of the 1940s, containing perhaps Cagney’s best bad-guy portrayal, according to www.filmsite.com.