White Heat, directed by Raoul Walsh, is surely one of the greatest gangster movies ever made, and while this is due to a number of factors, the sheer power of James Cagney‘s portrayal of psychotic gangster Cody Jarrett is what ultimately propels it to the upper echelons of movie history.
Arthur ‘Cody’ Jarrett (Cagney), on the run for murder during a train heist, voluntarily takes the wrap for a lesser crime elsewhere to avoid the gas chamber. While he is serving time, his henchman Big Ed (Steve Cochran) concocts a plan for an “accident” to happen to Jarrett, so he can assume leadership of the gang. An undercover police officer Vic Pardo (Edmond O’Brien) saves Jarrett from this fate, befriends him, and infiltrates the gang, accompanying him on a daring prison breakout, and a half-million heist on a chemicals factory, while leading the police to the crime.
From the opening heist, the film captures you and doesn’t let you go until the final second, with brilliantly paced action, and memorable characters. There is no subtext or pretension here, White Heat is a pure, perfect action/crime movie, but one that delivers on so many levels, most notably setting the stage for one of the greatest villains in cinema history. It’s label as “film-noir” for this list is debatable to be honest, there is none of the moral ambiguity associated with noir here, Jarrett is bad, and everyone knows it.
The character of Cody Jarrett should be regarded as one of the most complete, complex and crazy criminals the silver screen has ever seen, and this is perfectly captured and embellished by Cagney. A psychotic gangster with an unhealthy, almost Oedipal obsession with his mother (Ma Jarrett portrayed by Margaret Wycherly), and someone who seems to take great delight in killing. At times calm, clever, and ruthless; at others completely off-the-wall, Jarrett walks the tightrope of sanity, and much of the films tension comes from never knowing when he is going to fall. Cagney personifies this character perfectly, with a crazy spark in his eye and impeccable emotions, ad-libs and timing.
The film is full of stand-out scenes. When Jarrett learns of his mother’s death while in prison, he begins one of his “episodes”, with a truly terrifying gutteral groan, followed by a rampage around the prison’s mess hall. Famously the rest of the cast were not informed about this moment, and the look of surprise and worry on their faces is genuine, as Cagney appears to be having some kind of real-life breakdown – a very powerful scene. Cagney’s revenge on henchman “Big Ed” is cool and calculated, and Tarantino fans will delight in seeing Cagney calmly shoot some “airholes” into a car boot with someone inside, all while casually eating a chicken drumstick – the subtleties of each character are light years ahead of their time. The final heist is exciting and tense, as police use the latest tracking technology to track down Jarrett as he takes a final stand in a chemical factory, and culminates in one of the most awe-inspiring, powerful exits ever seen.
If you only ever see one gangster flick in your life, make it this one. A flawless film in every sense of the word, and one of the greatest performances the world has ever seen. Stop reading this, and watch it immediately.