Greatest Films of the 1940s
Greatest Films of the 1940s


Greatest Films of the 1940s
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1949

Title Screen Film Genre(s), Title, Year, (Country), Length, Director, Description

Adam's Rib (1949), 101 minutes, D: George Cukor
A great, sophisticated, battle-of-the-sexes comedy, one of Hollywood's greatest comedy classics. The sophisticated film was originally titled Man and Wife. Later remade into a 1973 TV series spin-off with Ken Howard and Blythe Danner. It was about husband-and-wife lawyers in the upper middle-class who took opposite sides of a front-page court case. With a forward-looking, provocative screenplay with snappy dialogue by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin - the husband and wife's second collaboration with director George Cukor. Often rated as the best pairing of the nine films of the legendary screen team of Tracy and Hepburn - it was their sixth film together. The film also skyrocketed the career of Judy Holliday who went on to play the lead role in Born Yesterday (1950). Chauvinistic Asst. District Attorney Adam Bonner (Spencer Tracy) prosecuted 'dumb blonde' Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday in her debut major film role) for attempted murder. The wronged Brooklyn housewife, a real bombshell, vengefully shot and wounded her philandering, two-timing husband Warren (Tom Ewell) who was with mistress Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen) in a Manhattan apartment. His savvy wife Amanda Bonner (Katharine Hepburn) victoriously defended the woman (pro bono) with feminist, women's rights arguments for seeking revenge - upsetting sexist double standards. At film's end, Adam conclusively admitted the profound differences between males and females: "Vive la difference."

All the King's Men (1949), 109 minutes, D: Robert Rossen
Best Picture-winning film. Robert Rossen's fictionalized account of the rise and fall of backwoods rebel lawyer and poor rural farmer turned into a corrupt politician - a story inspired by the rule (and despotic abuse of power) of Louisiana's colorful state governor (1928-32) and Democratic U.S. Senator (1932-35), the notorious Huey Long - better known as "The Kingfish" - who was only removed from office when he was assassinated. Remade as a TV movie (directed by Sidney Lumet) in 1958 with Neville Brand, and as All the King's Men (2006) with Sean Penn and Jude Law. Similar in premise to Raoul Walsh's A Lion Is In the Street (1953) with James Cagney, and the biographical drama Blaze (1989) with Paul Newman. The hard-hitting film was the melodramatic story of the corruption of power by an ambitious demagogue - adapted and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning and best-selling 1946 novel of the same name by Robert Penn Warren, and filmed from a script by producer-screenwriter-director Robert Rossen (known for directing other films such as Body and Soul (1947) and The Hustler (1961)). The main difference between the novel and the film was the reversal of the major roles: the narrating newspaper reporter took precedence over the power-hungry governor in the novel. In the film, the secondary character was the reporter Jack Burden (John Ireland), while the central character was small-town lawyer-turned-politician Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford). One of the film's posters proclaimed: "He thought he had the world by the tail...till it exploded in his face...with a bullet attached..." This great political drama was a breakthrough film for Broderick Crawford from his B-picture status - his performance was very compelling, electrifying and impressive as he was transformed from a backwoods, honest and naive lawyer into a dirty, unscrupulous, back-stabbing and sleazy politician.

Battleground (1949), 118 minutes, D: William A. Wellman
A solid, ultra-realistic, grim and authentic-looking war drama nominated for six Oscars (including Best Picture), with wins for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay (by Robert Pirosh, a veteran of the Battle of Bastogne) and Best B/W Cinematography. Noted as the first significant post-WWII film in the US. It told about a WWII platoon of American troops in the elite 101st Airborne Division ("The Screaming Eagles") trapped at the strategic crossroads of the city of Bastogne in late 1944 during wintry conditions. The raw recruits were dug in behind the German lines during the German's last-ditch advance at the Battle of the Bulge (the Siege of Bastogne), surrounded and outnumbered and awaiting their fate. The story was told as a character study of the various stressed-out GI comrades and dogfaces from around the country - including their fears, hopes, light-hearted humor and courage. When caught in inclement weather (the "fog of war"), the infantry group was cut off from supplies (reinforcements of food and ammunition) and military intelligence. The star-studded cast included James Whitmore as tough, tobacco-spitting lead Sgt. Kinnie suffering from frostbitten feet, Van Johnson as paratrooper Pfc. Holley, while Ricardo Montalban played the part of Pvt. Johnny Roderigues, a religious Latino from LA, John Hodiak was featured as Jarvess, an enlistee and Kansas newspaper columnist, Marshall Thompson as innocent and idealistic rookie Pvt. Layton - the film's narrator, and George Murphy as Pop Stazak, the oldest member of the platoon. Eventually when the skies cleared, the platoon survived after airplanes dropped parachutes with supplies, and they were relieved by fresh troops.

Beyond the Forest (1949), 96 minutes, D: King Vidor
A muddled, far-fetched and absurd film-noirish melodrama with an impressive score by Max Steiner, starring the inimitable Bette Davis in her last film for Warners after 18 years. The main female protagonist was one of the baddest, trashiest, and most warped of all femme fatales in cinematic history. The story was told in flashback by a narrator, who introduced the character of Rosa Moline (Bette Davis) as "evil" - a suspect in a manslaughter trial. The film reviewed the events that led up to Rosa's murder trial, the context for her "evil" reputation, and the events that led up to an accidental murder. Black-hearted, unattractive hag Rosa was a Loyalton, Wisconsin mill town girl, married to a decent, saintly small-town Midwestern doctor Dr. Lewis Moline (Joseph Cotten). She was dissatisfied, bored, neglected, discontented, and repressed by small town life in the mill town, longing for and coveting big-city life and desperate for wealth. She complained: "If I don't get out of here, I'll just die! Living here is like waiting for the funeral to begin. No, it's like waiting in the coffin for them to take you out!" She snarled at her husband -
"What a dump!" (referenced in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)). To escape her boredom, she first attempted adultery, engaging in a short, illicit, erotic love affair with a vacationing neighbor - wealthy Chicago industrialist/millionaire Neil Latimer (David Brian), while he was at his hunting lodge cabin near her hometown. She attempted to sexually entice and entrap him. However, after Rosa discovered that she was pregnant by her husband, she was forced to shoot and kill Latimer's cabin caretaker Moose Lawson (Minor Watson) to silence him, so that she could run away to Chicago with Latimer, who had reversed himself and now wanted to marry her. A murder trial found her not guilty for the 'accidental' death, while she continued to keep the pregnancy a secret from Latimer. In fact, she attempted to abort her baby with a "Psychiatrist" (code for 'Abortionist') - then successfully induced a miscarriage by jumping from a moving car down an embankment. Half-crazy, mad, feverish, and suffering from blood poisoning, she frantically continued to try to escape to Chicago to meet up with Latimer. Near the train station, she collapsed and died in the roadway before getting to the boarding platform.

Champion (1949), 99 minutes, D: Mark Robson
An all-time great boxing film and taut morality tale, with six Academy Award nominations (and one win for Best Film Editing), including Best Actor for Kirk Douglas in a star-making role. It was based on the short story Champion by Ring Lardner, that appeared in Metropolitan magazine in 1916. The story told about the ups and downs in the life of ruthless, loud-mouthed, thuggish, working-class boxing champ Michael "Midge" Kelly (Kirk Douglas) - seen in flashback. With his partially-disabled, crippled brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy), Midge was hitching westward and ended up in Kansas City after being picked up by boxer Johnny Dunne (John Day) and his good-time girlfriend Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell). Midge was encouraged to enter a boxing match event for $35, and although beaten in the four-round bout, his raw talent attracted the attention of his future manager from LA named Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart). Later in Malibu, California, Midge was forced to marry waitress Emma Bryce (Ruth Roman) after getting her pregnant - a shotgun marriage demanded by Emma's enraged father. Shortly after, he deserted her and located retired trainer Haley in an LA gym, and began working his way up in the boxing ranks by winning matches. Although Haley ordered him to take a dive in a fight against top opponent Johnny Dunne, he knocked Dunne out in the first round. For his disobedience, he was viciously beaten by his irate handlers and other organized mob members. He began a relationship with seductive gold-digger Grace, an opportunistic moll who was secretly working for Jerome Harris (Luis Van Rooten), Dunne's promoter and manager (with ties to criminals), who eventually persuaded Midge to switch managers and abandon Haley. Midge was also having an affair with naive and spoiled Palmer Harris (Lola Albright), Harris' sculptor wife. Harris made a deal with Midge to end his affair with his wife Palmer, by forgiving his debts - and Midge agreed, breaking Palmer's heart. All along in his career and personal life, Midge continued to throw away his moral principles. He cruelly alienated, abused and mistreated all of his friends and family (and even the mob) who had stood by him, including his mother, Connie (now engaged to Emma, whom Midge raped off-screen before her divorce was final) and Palmer. With Haley rehired as his trainer-manager, he prepared to defend his championship title against comeback fighter Dunne. During the final rematch, it became a brutal fight. Midge was knocked down twice and had a severely-cut eye, but he fought to the end and knocked out Dunne in the last round. But then, bloodied and victorious, a triumphant Midge - with a battered face - collapsed and died of a brain hemorrhage in his dressing room. In the last line of the film, Connie faintly praised his brother to the press: "He was a champion. He went out like a champion. He was a credit to the fight game, to the very end."

The Heiress (1949), 115 minutes, D: William Wyler
A great but bleak romantic drama based on Henry James' 1880 novella Washington Square and the 1946 play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, with an icy musical score from Aaron Copland. Remade as a TV movie in 1961, and by director Agnieszka Holland as Washington Square (1997) starring Jennifer Jason Leigh.
In mid-19th century New York City (Greenwich Village), a plain, repressed, shy and virginal 'heiress' daughter Catherine Sloper (Oscar-winning Olivia de Havilland) lived with her wealthy, arrogant, imperiously abusive, and domineering, widowed, patriarchal physician-father Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) in a luxurious townhouse. Also in the house was Catherine's Aunt and confidante, Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins). Catherine remained a spinster, after her young, first love toward a handsome, but penniless, mysterious suitor and mercenary, scheming Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) (although with ambiguous motivations - was he or wasn't he a fortune hunter?) was thwarted by her stern, tyrannically-selfish father. Her imperious and abusive father threatened to deny the bride-to-be her full inheritance. Pitifully, she was also jilted on the night of their elopement by Townsend. Over many years, her anger was suppressed and simmered, and surfaced when insincere scoundrel and playboyish gold-digger Townsend returned and again asked for her hand in marriage. With rational, cold, controlled rage for all her years of mistreatment, she turned the tables on him in the final, chilling scene.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949, UK) (aka Noblesse Oblige), 106 minutes, D: Robert Hamer
Loosely based on Roy Harniman's 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. The title was taken from a verse in Tennyson's 1942 poem Lady Clara Vere de Vere. In this morbid and ultra-black Ealing classic comedy about inheritance in Edwardian England by director Robert Hamer, the versatile Alec Guinness (in his third film role) starred with a virtuoso performance as all eight of the victimized members of the effete, aristocratic D'Ascoyne family (including Lady Agatha!) as they were killed one by one. All of the aristocratic family relatives were pictured in the title screen (young and old, and male and female -- a General, a snob, a young photographer, a suffragette, an Admiral, a Parson, a Banker and the Duke). The many heirs stood in the way of cold-blooded serial killer and impoverished, embittered commoner Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) - a distant poor relative and the ninth in line to inherit the Dukedom of Chalfont. The scheming Mazzini's intent was to murder all the other rival successors and competing heirs. Vengeful and greedy, and while in prison and about to be executed for his multiple crimes, he flashbacked to his earlier days ("In those days, I never had any trouble with the sixth commandment") and recounted how his opera-singing father died in childbirth, while his disinherited, ostracized mother (a member of the high-born D'Ascoyne family) was killed by a train (and refused a burial in the family vault at Chalfont). The murders occurred in this order: snobbish Ascoyne d'Ascoyne (by drowning in a boating accident), young Henry d'Ascoyne (by fire in a photographic darkroom), Reverend Lord Henry d'Ascoyne (The Parson) (by poison), suffragette Lady Agatha d'Ascoyne (by fall in hot-air balloon), Admiral Lord Horatio d'Ascoyne (The Admiral) (not murdered, died in naval accident), General Lord Rufus d'Ascoyne (The General) (by bomb explosion), Lord d'Ascoyne Ethelred (The Duke) (by gunshot while caught in a trap), and Lord Henry d'Ascoyne, Sr. (The Banker) (by fatal heart attack). In the satirical twist ending, Mazzini was released from prison (due to perjured testimony), but then realized he had left a self-incriminating document in his cell.

On the Town (1949), 98 minutes, D: Gene Kelley and Stanley Donen
This fresh, energetic, kinetic and innovative landmark MGM musical was co-directed by Stanley Donen and dancer/choreographer Gene Kelly (together, they directed three MGM post-war musicals) - his directorial debut, featured lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and Leonard Bernstein's music from the Broadway stage musical of 1944. This exuberant musical masterpiece won the Oscar for Best Musical Score. It took the musical out of the wall-bound studio and on location into New York City (with all the prominent sites) - the first time that actual locations were used for musical numbers. The movie was also noted as the third and final pairing of musical stars Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. It opened with the show-stopping, two and a half-minute song-and-dance number "New York, New York (It's a Hell of a Town)." The lively musical was a story about three on-leave sailors, Gabey (Gene Kelly), shy Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Ozzie (Jules Munshin), who were looking for romance during a 24-hour shore leave/furlough after docking in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Together, they experienced all the sights of the city with their new girlfriends: lust-crazed woman cab driver Hildy Esterhazy (Betty Garrett) (who advanced on Chip in "Come Up to My Place"), sexy anthropologist Claire Huddesen (Ann Miller) (whom Ozzie met in the fictional Museum of Anthropological History where they performed the song/dance "Prehistoric Man"), and ballet dancer 'Miss Turnstiles' (subway ad 'dream girl'), actually named Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen) - who performed a duet with Gabey in "Main Street," and then appeared in a stylized and innovative dream sequence titled "A Day in New York." The film ended with the climactic title number "On the Town" performed by the three couples.

The Reckless Moment (1949), 82 minutes, D: Max Ophuls
Director Max Ophuls' taut domestic noirish 'woman's melodrama' and thriller, with stark shadowy cinematography (by Burnett Guffey), was his fourth and final Hollywood film before returning to Europe. Ophuls was known for trademark long and fluid takes, deep-focus, and subtle mise-en-scene. Slightly similar in theme to Mildred Pierce (1945), the story was adapted from Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's 1947 "The Blank Wall" originally published in the Ladies Home Journal. It was remade as The Deep End (2001), by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, with star Tilda Swinton. It was set in a small, sleepy beach-seaside community (Balboa) 50 miles from Los Angeles. Upper middle-class, chain-smoking, bespectacled, and sheltered housewife Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) (with her patriarchal husband Tom noticeably absent and away on business in Berlin, Germany) mistakenly believed that her arrogant, nail-biting, and impetuous 17 year-old daughter Beatrice or "Bea" (Geraldine Brooks), an LA art school student, had killed her slimy, older lover Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick). In reality, Darby accidentally died (a case of manslaughter) during a clandestine meeting with Bea in a boathouse. When Bea angrily hit Darby in the head with a flashlight, he tripped, lost his balance and fell onto a large boat anchor. In a panic and "reckless moment," the determined, frantic, devoted and selfless mother (to defend her domesticity and family) dumped the body in a lagoon, but the corpse washed ashore and was discovered. Afterwards, suave, small-time Irish crook Martin Donnelly (James Mason in his third US film) visited Lucia to blackmail her (for $5,000 hush money), on behalf of his tough boss-partner Nagel (Roy Roberts), a loan shark with incriminating letters that Bea had written to Ted. Although Martin soon became infatuated with Lucia, his dangerous and unprincipled partner continued to pressure him and demand payment. Feeling entrapped by lies and deception, neurotic woman-in-peril Lucia attempted to raise the funds (at first she was unsuccessful in securing a loan from a bank), and resorted to pawning her jewelry (for only $800), with Donnelly in tow. In the stirring conclusion, Donnelly decided to defend Lucia against Nagel. Although stabbed, Donnelly choked Nagel to death. As he was dying after a car crash during his departure, Donnelly assured Lucia that he would take the blame for the deaths of Darby and Nabel. The film ended, as Lucia phoned her distant husband and assured him that everything would be fine once he returned home.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), 103 minutes, D: John Ford
This was the second of director John Ford's "cavalry trilogy" series (and his personal favorite, preceded by Fort Apache (1948) and followed by Rio Grande (1950) which were in black and white), filmed in his favorite scenic locale - Monument Valley. It was noted for Winton C. Hoch's beautiful Oscar-winning color cinematography (the film's sole nomination and win). Ford's autumnal and sentimental western starred John Wayne as a retirement-age cavalry captain named Nathan Brittles, serving at Fort Starke, a one-troop cavalry post, in 1876. In one sunset scene, soon-to-be retired Capt. Brittles sat at the gravestone of his wife Mary Cutting Brittles and spoke to her while he watered the flowers. The Captain was attempting to prevent a large-scale Native-American Indian uprising with Chief Pony That Talks (Chief John Big Tree) following General Custer's (and the 7th Cavalry) defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. On a dangerous mission, his last patrol, he protectively accompanied two women who were being evacuated for their own safety to an awaiting stagecoach at Sudros Well: post commander Major Allshard's (George O'Brien) wife Abby 'Old Iron Pants' Allshard (Mildred Natwick), and attractive single lady Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) (with a 'yellow ribbon' in her hair signifying she had chosen a beau) - who was being pursued by two lieutenants in the fort - Lieutenant Flint Cohill (John Agar) and Lieutenant Pennell (Harry Carey, Jr.). During the trip, Captain Brittles learned that warring Indians had destroyed the stage depot, forcing them to return to the fort.
On his last day in a farewell scene, Brittles' C troops gave him a silver pocketwatch with the inscription "Lest we forget" that he tearfully and proudly read with his glasses. To avoid a bloody war, even after his retirement, he chose a risky strategy of stampeding the Indians' horses out of their camp at midnight, to force them to return to their reservation on foot.

The Third Man (1949, UK), 100 minutes, D: Carol Reed
Carol Reed's British visually-stylish film noir thriller - a paranoid story of social, economic, and moral corruption - has been widely acclaimed as an effective suspenser and one of the best films of all-time. It was adapted from Graham Greene's novella written to prepare the film's screenplay, then later published. With a haunting zither musical score and theme from Anton Karas, and innovative b/w camera-work (by Robert Krasker) to accentuate the gloomy, depressed, rotting and sinister atmosphere. Unusually reckless, canted camera angles (one of their earliest uses), and wide-angle lens distortions amidst the atmospheric on-location views of a shadowy Vienna cast a somber mood over the fable of post-war moral ambiguity and ambivalent redemption. The deliberately unsettling, tilted angles reflected the state of the ruined, fractured and dark city - ravaged, crumbling and desperate during the Cold War, and split among the occupying forces. Vienna was also filled with black marketeers, spies, refugees, thieves, and foreign powers seeking control. A pulp Western novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrived in Vienna, totally broke and hoping to find employment. He was forced to assume the role of an amateur sleuth as he looked for old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) who had reportedly been killed in Vienna in a car accident days earlier - although there were mysterious circumstances surrounding the incident. He sought to unravel the mystery of the presumed-dead friend with a probing search, and an infatuation with Lime's actress girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli). The first appearance of Lime was in a doorway, as a light suddenly illuminated his sardonic smile. He ultimately learned that Lime was a vile, unscrupulous and notorious black-market drug dealer who preyed on the sick with diluted penicillin. The great thriller included the dramatic scene atop a ferris wheel (with the famed "Swiss cuckoo clock" dialogue), a suspenseful manhunt led by Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) into the underground city sewers for Lime - a shadowy, marked man, and the famed ending of Anna's stoic shunning of Martins while remaining loyal to Lime.

Twelve O'Clock High (1949), 132 minutes, D: Henry King
A great and realistic war film about leadership - and a superb and enthralling character study emphasizing the stress encountered by various WWII officers who led US forces into combat. Although effective against the German Nazis, the heavy bombing raids in a hot combat zone took a horrendous, self-destructive, emotional and physical toll on fliers and aircraft. The terrifying and dangerous air raids were dramatically photographed in numerous aerial sequences. This timely, tense and compelling film was told in flashback (from the year 1949, looking back to 1942) by middle-aged, introspective American tourist Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) who was visiting an abandoned airstrip in England. Years earlier, he had served with the struggling 918th Bomb Group (of the US Eighth Air Force) of B-12 bombers based at Archbury, England in late 1942. He recalled when Brig. Gen. Frank Savage (Gregory Peck), a tough, hard-as-nails, discipline-oriented commander was assigned to the unit. [Note: Peck's character was based on Colonel Frank Armstrong, Jr. whose exploits in whipping into shape the real-life 306th Bombardment Group at Thurleigh Field in England were documented in the 1948 novel of the same name by the film's scriptwriters Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr.] Known as a very strict, harsh and by-the-book officer, Savage replaced compassionate, soft-hearted but popular predecessor Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) who had been relieved of his duty after resisting to send his men on another near-suicidal, low-altitude daytime mission. At first, the scarred, hard-luck men with low morale resented and detested the personal style of their stern replacement commander who insisted on discipline, and many of them threatened to be transferred. However, they gradually learned to respect him. Over time, Savage began to over-identify with his beleaguered men, and suffered from the same effects that doomed Davenport. In the stressful atmosphere of uncertainty, risk and danger, he began to act erratically, went into shock and had a nervous breakdown during a mission.

Whisky Galore! (1949, UK) (aka Tight Little Island), D: Alexander Mackendrick
Alexander Mackendrick's directorial debut film was this Ealing Studios release - a droll, fast-paced, black-and-white British comedy that was well-revered, based on the light-hearted 1947 novel by Scottish novelist Compton Mackenzie. It was based upon a true story of a sunken ship in early 1941. The odd comedy told about a cargo of whiskey, 50,000 cases, on the steamship freighter SS Cabinet Minister that was shipwrecked in heavy fog off the rocky and remote Scottish Hebrides island of Todday during WWII - the tagline described: "It's Light... It's Bright... It's 100 Proof!" The tempted and thirsty locals during a time of war rationing, salvaged some of the precious cargo, smuggled it to the island, and concealed it. Among those who were enlivened by the cargo were the town's teetotalling, henpecked schoolteacher George Campbell (Gordon Jackson), his strict and domineering Calvinist mother Mrs. Campbell (Jean Cadell), and dying hermit Old Hector (James Anderson). They and other wily townsfolk made numerous devious attempts to circumvent the British customs revenue officials, led by stuffy, bureaucratic and pompous Home Guard Captain Paul Waggett (Basil Radford), who wanted to confiscate the find. A cat-and-mouse game distracted the authorities, and allowed the islanders to triumphantly keep their prized drink. In the film's moral epilogue, however, it was announced that the whiskey soon dried up, and the Todday islanders lived 'unhappily' ever after.

White Heat (1949), 114 minutes, D: Raoul Walsh
One of the most volatile, super-charged and compelling gangster-crime films ever made, and one of the last of Warner Bros.' gangster films - a full decade after their proliferation in the 1930s. The classic film anticipated the heist films of the early '50s (e.g., John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956)), accentuated the semi-documentary style of films of the period (e.g., The Naked City (1948)), and contained film-noirish elements, including the shady black-and-white cinematography, the femme fatale character, and the twisted psyche of the criminal gangster.
The film-noirish crime drama told about a psychopathic, homicidal, mother-devoted gangster. Crazed, eccentric, and tough-guy killer Arthur "Cody" Jarrett (James Cagney in one of his finest career performances) led a gang of train robbers in the High Sierras, while unnaturally and obsessively aided by the ministrations of his beloved, equally crooked and shrewd "Ma" Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly), the only female he truly loved, and the only one who could console him during excruciatingly-painful bouts of headaches. His treacherous wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) was unfaithful with rebellious gang member "Big Ed" Somers (Steve Cochran), amidst gang dissension, when Cody was briefly imprisoned in the Illinois State Penitentiary. When he learned of his mother's death, the mother-fixated, violent and warped Cody went beserk in the prison cafeteria. After an escape from prison during a riot, he fled to Southern California, where Verna assured him that "Big Ed" had shot and killed his mother (although she had committed the deed) - and Cody gunned him down. Then, during the payroll robbery of an oil refinery and chemical plant in Long Beach, Cody was betrayed by clever undercover agent/informant Vic Pardo/Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien). In the legendary blazing finale, a trapped Cody was consumed in the flames of a round-shaped holding tank explosion (from his own gunfire) as he proclaimed: "Made it Ma! Top of the world!"


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