Comfortable and Furious

White Heat (1949)

Synopsis: Not every mummy’s boy is a pansy.

Director: Raoul Walsh

Cast: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Steve Cochran, Margaret Wycherly

Goodfellas’ Joe Pesci won an Oscar for his Spider-squashing portrayal of a nutso mobster but when it comes to wiping people out he pales next to his forerunner, the similarly dwarfish Cagney. Good grief, the insane Cagney is a one-man army of death.

He plays Cody Jarrett, a psychotic gang boss who operates with no code, except to look out for his equally twisted ma. He begins his journey to the top of the world during a mail train robbery by murdering two engineers without hesitation in which he’s also happy to leave a badly wounded gang member behind. This is a permanently snarling hood half-drunk on paranoia with a ‘red-hot buzz saw’ whirring away in his head.

Mind you, his iron-hard suspicions aren’t without foundation. For a start he’s married to Verna (Mayo), a mink-draped looker who happens to be having it off with his treacherous right-hand man, Big Ed (Cochran). She’s a self-centered, diamond-studded bitch, although her dread of her husband is well-founded. “Cody ain’t human,” she tells her ambitious lover.

“Fill him full of lead and he’ll still come at ya!” Then there’s Cody’s sharp, beady-eyed ma (Wycherly), a black-clad matriarch who’s not only failed at the crucial job of parenting but also passed on some rather dodgy genes. She’s the skin-crawling sort who could step into the shoes of Norman Bates’ mum without skipping a beat.

Part gangster, part prison and part cop movie, the gripping, censor-baiting White Heat adroitly covers a lot of bases, especially as it chucks in skull-splitting migraines and clandestine lip-reading as well. The fifty-year-old Cagney is magnetic, dominating every scene and taking full advantage of a well-written, unpredictable script. It’s hard to pick out a favorite moment, but I do like him wigging out behind bars and going on the rampage, incoherent with grief and rage while punching three or four baton-wielding guards.

Then there are the unexpected displays of tenderness, such as kicking his wife off a stool after she makes a crack about his bond with ma. And what about that fantastic scene where a double-crosser bundled into a car boot complains it’s getting stuffy? “Oh,” Cody replies, munching on a chicken drumstick, “I’ll give you a little air.” Four bullets are pumped into the boot, the nonchalant response capturing the man’s insanity just as adeptly as all the times he goes ballistic.

Mean, punchy and uncompromising, White Heat has an impressive body count, some hi-tech trimmings and a particularly memorable final few minutes. It’s a seething mix of murder, unrepentant criminality, betrayal, dank relationships and the odd corpse being kicked down the stairs, fully justifying its reputation as one of the best mobster movies ever made.



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2 responses to “White Heat (1949)”

  1. John Welsh Avatar
    John Welsh

    Wow Dave, that one hit me like a shot of cheap bourbon from a dirty glass. Nice goin’.
    Orson Welles said Cagey was the perfect movie actor ( song and dance man in Yankee Doodle Dandy George M “Born on the 4th of July” Cohan in one movie, killer Cody Jarrett in another. ) “Top of the world, Ma!” a great exit line.

    Margaret Wycherly who played the maternally challenged Ma Jarrett played the kindly Christian mother of Alvin York in Sergeant York.

    Just ten years perviously Edmund O’Brain had been the handsome young poet Pierre Gringoire in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and twenty years later be the almost unrecognizable Freddie Sykes in The Wild Bunch.

    1. Goat Avatar

      Oh, yeah, Cagney makes Pesci look like a punk.

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