Of course I knew White Heat was a classic movie, but I hadn't seen it since I was a kid. And I had no idea what a knockout it was. It's aged amazingly well and is one of the best movies of the 1940s. A classic crime thriller, people also call it a film noir, but personally I don't think it fits into that category by almost any criteria (except the music). Who cares? It's great.
The director is Raoul Walsh, who does a spectacular job. The script is also terrific, well researched, beautifully paced and extremely well organised. Some of the dialogue is the usual phony hardboiled poppycock of the era, but we'll forgive them that.
The screenplay is by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts from a story by Virginia Kellogg. Goff & Roberts (the ampersand is appropriate, since they were a screenwriting team) had a long and successful career in together movies followed by an equally long and successful career together in television — they created Charlie's Angels! But we'll forgive them that, too.
Virginia Kellogg wrote for the movies for over twenty years, including the Anthony Mann crime thriller T-Men, though her women's prison movie Caged is probably best remembered now — as something of a camp classic.
White Heat doesn't have the
depth of feeling, or quite the complexity of characterisation of High Sierra — also directed by Raoul Walsh. It does, however, start with a
brisk robbery sequence which is set in the High Sierra mountains, the first of two
major heist setpieces in the movie. And White Heat is very dynamic and gripping,
moving swiftly from heist to manhunt to prison to escape to climactic heist. The
basic spine of the story is how an undercover cop (Edmond O'Brien) infiltrates the gang
of dangerous psychopath Cody Jarrett (James Cagney).
It's a post-code Hollywood production, which means we have the ludicrous spectacle of a gangster and his moll not only having separate beds but separate bedrooms. Although the writers do manage to smuggle in a daring line from Cody's Ma when she sneers at the girl "Wearing out the mattress."
The moll Verna is played by Virginia Mayo. She's given a rather two-dimensional, stereotyped character to play. But she adds some lovely touches. After a drinking session she decides it's bedtime and jumps up onto Cagney and gets him to give her a piggyback upstairs. Heading for the big heist at the end she wishes him luck, and spits out her chewing gum just before she gives him a goodbye kiss.
Cody's relationship with his mother really makes the film distinctive. Although, interestingly, Cagney's very first movie, Sinner's Holiday (1930), also featured him as a mother fixated hoodlum. Rather disturbingly, in White Heat the undercover cop ends up as a surrogate mother figure for Cody after Ma's death.
Ma is bumped off in an amazingly cold and casual way. It happens offscreen and we only learn about it when the jailed Cagney asks a fellow con for news of her on the outside. The answer that comes back, passed along the line, is brutally terse: "She's dead." And Cody, who is a dangerous lunatic at the best of times, flips.
Goff & Roberts pull off a beautiful twist in the screenplay. It's what I think of as a Peter O'Donnell reversal, where you set up an elaborate plot development and create audience expectation for it — and then startle us by discarding it for something else entirely. In this case there's a jailbreak all ready to go, with the undercover cop setting up an oscillator to track the fugitives. Everything goes wrong and Cagney's gang escape in an entirely different way. But the neatly set up oscillator proves crucial later in the story. Great writing, boys.
Cagney is magnificent. His believability and charismatic naturalism makes almost everyone else look phony and mannered, though Margaret Wycherly is impressively restrained and menacing as Ma Jarrett.
We also have to note Max Steiner's overpowering noir music score. I think I heard a theremin in there somewhere.
And of course the unforgettable climax with Cagney immolated ("Top of the world, Ma!") atop the Horton spheres in the chemical plant. This explosively apocalyptic ending anticipates Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly.
(Image credits: The vintage poster of Cagney and Mayo is from Cagney Online. The poster of Cagney solo is from Films Noir Net. As is the "Top of the world" vignette. Cody and Verna in the car with Ma is from Derek Winnert's Classic Film Review. The shotgun and tear gas image is from Dr Macro's high quality movie scans. The title shot is from the Twenty Four Frames movie blog. Absurdly, it seems impossible to find an image of the Horton spheres from White Heat. The one here is from the the Provincial Archives of Alberta (!) via Flickr.)