I've written before that Cagney as a movie star was never one of my favorites, his acting style very theatrical and over the top. I've come around some as I've seen in him a few of his more subdued parts. The one movie I was told I had to give a chance was this one, White Heat. If I didn't like it, I was in the free and clear and should probably steer clear of his lesser efforts. Well, no problem there. Cagney's performance is theatrical and over the top but it is a part that demands he be both of those things. Considered his best acting job for a reason, this is a perfect introduction for anyone looking to get to know one of Hollywood's biggest stars of the 1930s and 1940s.
Running his brutal gang, Cody Jarrett (Cagney) faces a difficult decision. After a highly successful train robbery that netted over $300,000 but also produced four dead bodies, Jarrett is feeling the heat as FBI agent Philip Evans (John Archer) leads the manhunt to bring him to justice. Cody takes a lesser rap for a heist he didn't actually take part in, but it gives him an alibi for the job that would have sent him to the electric chair. Evans knows he's been duped with Jarrett taking a short sentence that will have him out on the streets in 2 years. He brings in one of his best undercover agents, Vic Pardo (Edmond O'Brien), and plants him in Jarrett's cell as a convict. Notoriously hot-tempered, Jarrett still takes to Vic and takes him under his wing almost like a little brother. Evans' plan works as Jarrett organizes a daring escape with Vic as the newest member of his dangerous gang.
Director Raoul Walsh wastes about four minutes post-credits before showing that his main character Cody Jarrett is one of the nastiest gangsters you're ever going to come across in a movie. In the opening heist of a train carrying a Wells Fargo shipment of cash, Jarrett callously guns down the engineer and his assistant at the very mention of his name (Henry Fonda had a similar reaction some 19 years later in Once Upon a Time in the West). That was part of the appeal of this movie, it's not a conventional 1940s flick where you can predict everything coming 15 or 20 minutes before it happens. The characters aren't particularly likable -- no redeeming qualities in sight for the most part -- and the attitudes toward sex and violence are far more lenient than most movies that came out of this stage in Hollywood's history. Of course, there is that Cagney guy leading the way.
In my messed up head watching movies about the bad guys (simplistic description, but it gets the idea across), I typically find myself rooting for said bad guys. Cagney pushes my tolerance for rooting for the bad guy because Cody Jarrett is one nasty dude. However, the fact that I was even contemplating being in this guy's corner is a testament to not only Cagney's acting ability but the strength of the screenplay. It digs into this character and really fleshes him out. He's the definition of a mama's boy with Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) doting on her son as she helps him run his gang. It is 1949 though so while certain things are hinted at (cough Oedipus complex cough) the hint is as far as things go. Then there's Cody's slutty wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) who latches on to whoever can get her the farthest in life with as much money and worldly possessions as possible.
So throw all this together along with a gang of murderers and cutthroats, and you kinda see where Cody's coming from. Not rationalizing here, just explaining. He has to be the nastiest S.O.B around or else he would get taken down in minutes by the wolves nipping at his heels. It's always refreshing to see a character fleshed out as much as this. There are moments where you are disgusted by his actions, but then you see him looking out for O'Brien's Vic like a little brother, and you feel for him. Of course, from the moment this character is introduced, you know what fate he's going to meet. It's never in doubt. Cody Jarrett is going out in a blaze of glory like no other. The ending -- as Jarrett, Pardo and the gang knock off a payroll at a chemical plant -- is a whopper of a finish, leading to the oft-repeated line 'Top of the world.' A finale that's about as good as they get.
I'm not sure how Cagney wasn't nominated in some way for his part as homicidal Cody Jarrett, but the lead performance is just one of many rock-solid acting jobs pulled here. Wycherly as Ma Jarrett is the picture of a devoted mother who knows her son is doomed but can't stop him, Mayo the femme fatale, Steve Cochrane as treacherous Big Ed Somers, and O'Brien especially as Pardo. In a similar way to the viewer, Pardo has this unexplainable connection to Jarrett. That's the movie in a nutshell. You're drawn in by this character you should despise but just can't come around. A must-see.
White Heat <---trailer (1949): *** 1/2 /****