Filmsite Movie Review
White Heat (1949)
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White Heat (1949) is one of the top classic crime-heist dramas of the post-war period, and one of the last of Warner Bros' gritty crime films in its era. White Heat is an entertaining, fascinating and hypnotic portrait of a flamboyant, mother-dominated and fixated, epileptic and psychotic killer, who often spouts crude bits of humor. The dynamic film, with both film noir and documentary-style elements, is characterized by an increased level of violence and brutality along with some classical Greek elements (the Trojan Horse ruse, and the Oedipus complex).

The film's screenplay by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts was suggested by a story of the same name by Virginia Kellogg. She received an Academy Award nomination for Best Story - the film's only nomination. [Note: Kellogg's previous film was the documentary-styled noirish T-Men (1947), and her next film was the brutal prison drama Caged (1950), set in a women's institution. Caged (1950) brought Kellogg her second (and last) Best Story nomination.]

The crooked, cold-blooded, and warped gangster has many personality and psychological flaws, but is tragically and ultimately betrayed by the stupidity of his closest accomplices (a scheming right-hand man gang member and even his criminal mother when she leaves the gang to purchase strawberries), and by his trusted cell-mate/friend whom he eventually realizes is an undercover cop. [Note: The film was inspired by the real-life gangster Arthur "Doc" and his mother Ma Barker, from a suggestion by star Cagney himself to the writers.]

The melodramatic, Freudian-based crime film, with recurring themes of betrayal and trust, is enhanced by the musical score of Max Steiner and the frantic pacing brilliantly served up by the director. The most memorable scenes include:

  • the opening train robbery of a payroll from a steam locomotive/train in the California Sierras, involving the cruel murder of innocent people by a gang of violent thieves
  • a lap-sitting scene portraying the gangster's unhealthy affection toward his mother who soothes him during bouts of painful migraine headaches
  • the tracing of the gang by T-Men using hi-tech methods that locate the gang in a Los Angeles motel, and later track the gang to a chemical plant near Long Beach
  • the serving of the gangster's prison term in Illinois (to receive a lesser charge rather than the electric chair), where the T-Men place an undercover agent to spy on him, while his gang's right-hand man - with the gangster's sultry, duplicitous, two-timing wife - are scheming to take over and replace him
  • the prison mess scene when the crazed gangster hears of his mother's death (murdered by his own wife who shot her in the back) and goes beserk - and shortly later escapes from prison
  • the finale involving the theft of payroll from a chemical plant in Long Beach, CA using a "Trojan Horse" ruse, and the apocalyptic ending as the crazed gangster dies in a blaze of glory at the "top of the world"

The fast-paced, powerful Warner Bros. film revived the gangster film in the last year of the decade - and it was 50 year-old James Cagney's comeback-return to his popular, 'tough-guy' gangster image at the studio with a dynamite, all-stops-out performance. His last film with Warner Bros. was seven years earlier - Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). This was Cagney's first gangster film role in ten years - his previous role was in The Roaring Twenties (1939) with the same director - Raoul Walsh. (Walsh had also directed Cagney in two other films: Strawberry Blonde (1941) and A Lion Is In the Streets (1953). Therefore, this was Cagney's third film of four with Walsh. He also helmed one of the best films in the gangster genre - High Sierra (1941) starring Humphrey Bogart.) And before that, Cagney had appeared as a similar ruthless gangster in two of his earliest, most definitive gangster films for Warners - William A. Wellman's The Public Enemy (1931) and Michael Curtiz's Angels With Dirty Faces (1938).

After this pivotal 1949 film in Cagney's career as an archetypal, pugnacious gangster, he never achieved the same apotheosis, starring in such films as Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), the musical bio Love Me or Leave Me (1955), the comedy-drama Mister Roberts (1955), the Cold War comedy One Two Three (1961), and after a long 20 year hiatus, Ragtime (1981).

This classic film anticipated the heist films of the early 50s (John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956)), accentuated the semi-documentary style of films of the period (Naked City (1948)) with its emphasis on new hi-tech forensic methods, and contained film-noirish elements, including the shady black and white cinematography, the femme fatale character, and the twisted psyche of the criminal gangster.

Plot Synopsis

The film opens with a train robbery in mountainous terrain near the border of the California State Line. A black vehicle hurtles and screeches around winding mountain curves chasing after a train locomotive blowing its noisy whistle. In the car are the leader of the gang of train robbers, cold-blooded, maniacal, crime boss mastermind Cody Jarrett (James Cagney), the driver Het Kohler (Mickey Knox), and two thugs in the back seat Zuckie Hommell (Ford Rainey) (the newest gang member), and Giovanni "Cotton" Valletti (Wally Cassell). The first view of Cody is in the front seat of the car, close-lipped, impatient, and flanked on either side by his thugs in the back seat. His two henchmen "Big Ed" Somers (Steve Cochran) and Happy Taylor (Fred Coby) are already onboard the train and kill two of the train's conductors for not stopping the train. They pull the emergency cord to stop the train as it emerges from a tunnel. Cody dramatically (but unnecessarily) leaps from the ledge of the tunnel's mouth onto the moving, slowing-down target and makes his way toward the front of the train; Zuckie takes over the controls from the Engineer (Murray Leonard):

Engineer: What's this, a hold-up?
Cody: Naw, naw, you're seven minutes late. We're just changin' engineers.
Zuckie: A lot fancier than my old coal-burner on the C & O.
Cody: Shuddup.

After halting the train, Het and "Cotton" smash the windows of the US Post Office Mail car and then dynamite the entry door.

Zuckie: (after hearing shots) Sounds bad, Cody.
Cody: Why don't you give 'em my address too....
Engineer: You won't get away with it, Cody.
Cody: Cody, huh?...You've got a good memory for names. Too good.

In cold blood, Cody brutally shoots both the Engineer (Murray Leonard) and Fireman (Leo Cleary) - who have heard loud-mouthed, talkative Zuckie mention his name in the cab - to prevent them from identifying him.

When the Fireman collapses from his fatal bullet wounds, he falls upon the blowoff cock lever, jerking it open. It scalds and blinds Zuckie in the face with a blast of hot steam as he was standing on the side of the train, causing him to writhe around on the ground. [Note: A symbolic indication of the red hot "white heat" - the film's title, and his punishment for using Cody's real name.] The gang escapes with the loot from the hold-up after murdering four railway men.

In a broadcast booth, a radio announcer (Terry O'Sullivan) reads a report of the heist into a microphone:

A week has passed since bandits jumped a mail train coming out of the High Sierra tunnel and fled with three hundred thousand dollars in federal currency, leaving four dead.

The film cuts to a mountain shed hide-away where the gang has fled, 300 hundred miles away from Tahoe where the robbery took place. They listen to the report on their car's radio, that inaccurately reports that the train-robbing gang fled to Arizona:

Treasury authorities now believe that the gang has escaped to Arizona, where today a bank was raided and two tellers killed with the same cold-bloodedness that characterized the tunnel robbery.

During a tracking shot toward the cabin, a burly, highly ambitious Big Ed, dressed in gangster attire (a black shirt, black hat and overcoat) and Cotton restlessly discuss overturning their boss' autocratic, homicidal leadership:

Big Ed: We gotta blow outta here.
Cotton: Cody calls chargin' roadblocks 'unscientific.'
Big Ed: It ain't safe havin' a crackpot givin' orders. About time somebody took over.
Cotton: Who, for instance?
Big Ed: A very good friend of mine. Me.
Cotton: Where d'ya want the body sent?

Two fisted, Cody is drinking very delicately out of a teacup. Rivaling Cody's authority, right-hand man Big Ed complains that they are huddled up in a mountain cabin against the cold - "holed up here like a bunch of gophers" with "a sackful of dough." Cody's old, hawkish mother or Ma (Margaret Wycherly, who also played a different kind of 'mother figure' in Sergeant York (1941)) is stirring stew on the stove, and Cody's voluptuous blonde wife Verna Jarrett (Virginia Mayo) is asleep in an adjoining back bedroom. In the first view of the brassy, dim-witted blonde, she is wearing a slip and laid out on the bed - snoring. She is aroused by Cody's kick on the door, swings her legs up and around toward the floor, and reluctantly gets up and enters the main room:

Ma Jarrett: Well, if it ain't the Sleeping Beauty!
Verna: What else does a girl do around this bear trap?
Ma Jarrett: There's plenty you can do without wearin' out the mattress.
Verna: It's the only place I don't freeze. (Appealing to Cody) I been cold for a week, Cody. Not even a fire. Who's gonna see a little bit of smoke a hundred miles from nowhere?

Lying on the sofa, Zuckie moans piteously with his face and hands bandaged without a doctor's aid. Cody suspiciously knows that Big Ed, his lieutenant who has acquired his nickname due to his "big ideas," is waiting for his chance to overthrow him (and also snatch his seductive wife):

Ya know somethin', Verna? If I turned my back long enough for Big Ed to put a hole in it - there'd be a hole in it. (He chuckles.) Big Ed. Great Big Ed. You know why they call him that? 'Cause his ideas are big. Some day, he's gonna get a really big one - about me - it'll be his last.

As Cody sits and prepares to put bullets into the revolving chamber of his gun, he winces as he experiences a strange, painful headache (migraine?) or epileptic fit - his Achilles' heel. He groans, lurches, keels over and falls to the floor - his gun explodes as he hits the floor, helplessly incontinent. Showing concern, his mother steers him into the bedroom as he blindly stumbles about - she is the only one allowed to witness his headache attacks. Often looking at each other suggestively, Big Ed and Verna make derogatory comments about Cody's mental state:

Verna: It's his second one he's had in a month.
Big Ed: He's nuts, just like his old man.

Flung across the bed in a second bedroom, Cody pounds the mattress with his fists. Bending over him, his mother kneads her fingers into the back of his neck and head to soften the 'buzz-saw' pain and white heat of the debilitating, blinding migraine and provide soothing solace and comfort for her son. Emotionally dependent upon her, he sits on his mother's lap, emphasizing the Oedipal complex of his relationship with her:

Ma Jarrett: It's these mountains, Cody. It's not good for ya. Cold all the time. Can't breathe air. Let's get out, Son.
Cody: I'm all right now.
Ma: Is it going?
Cody: Yeah.
Ma: Are you sure?
Cody:'s like having a red hot buzz-saw inside my head.
Ma: (Cody attempts to leave the room) No, not yet, Son. Don't let 'em see you like that. Might give some of 'em ideas.
Cody (He sits down in his mother's lap.) You're always thinkin' about your Cody, aren't ya?
Ma: That's right. (She rises and pours him a drink of whiskey.) Top of the world, Son.
Cody: Don't know what I'd do without ya, Ma. (He downs the drink.)
Ma: Better?
Cody: Oh yeah.
Ma: Now go on out. Show 'em you're all right.

His Ma functions as his mentor and advisor, and encourages her son to forcefully regain his confidence and appear as normal again. Cody re-emerges into the outer room from the bedroom and barks: "What're ya all gapin' at?"

Under the cover of an approaching storm, they start packin' to leave for Los Angeles after Happy announces that he has heard a weather report on the radio. He is slugged and threatened for disobeying Cody's orders, and running down the battery: "I told you to keep away from that radio. If that battery is dead, it'll have company." A suitcase full of twenty-dollar bills is opened and checked on Cody's bed. Verna is tempted by the loot and puts her arms around Cody's neck - and he compliments her:

Verna: Why don't ya keep it all?...Why don't ya? We could travel, buy things. That's what money's for. I look good in a mink coat, honey.
Cody: You'd look good in a shower curtain.

While the cabin is stripped, Zuckie fears that he will be left behind: "Ya won't leave me here? You'll take me with ya?" After they clear out and leave him on the sofa, Cody orders Cotton to go back and function as the doctor or "specialist" for Zuckie. He hands him a revolver: "A specialist, you. Here, you're such a pal of his. Go back and make it easy for him." Cody attempts to assure his mother that he is in charge of getting them away safely: ("Rest easy, Ma. We're 300 miles from the tunnel. What have they got? A corpse without a record. Nothin' to tie him in with the tunnel job or us"). Inside, Cotton fires the gun at the ceiling three times to fake a killing and then promises his buddy: "Don't make a sound, Zuckie...Look, I'll try to come back." Cotton places a pack of cigarettes into Zuckie's pocket before leaving. The gang separates into two vehicles to avoid detection.

A nameplate reads: "TAHOE COUNTY MORGUE." In the morgue, a sheet obscures the body of Zuckie - who was found frozen to death in a Tahoe mountain cabin. A flashbulb pops as the Chief of Police (Marshall Bradford) speaks to Phillip Evans (John Archer, father of film star Anne Archer), a US Treasury Department agent, about the man's ultimate fate:

A couple of hunters found him frozen up in the mountains and we started wondering. A stranger, bullet hole in the roof of the cabin, and particularly the condition of his face.

The police surgeon (George Taylor) reports that "despite the third-degree burn, the eyebrows and hairline weren't even singed. That means either boiling water or steam." It is hypothesized that the dead man may have been scalded by the steam engine of the train involved in the holdup.

In his Los Angeles Division office, US Treasury Agent Evans still struggles to find the identities of the train thieves. Willie Rolph (Milton Parsons), a slimy informant stoolie, explains his lack of success over the last month: "...not a buck from the tunnel job showed up." Modern (actually crude), sophisticated, technological police methods are employed: spectograph scans of dust deposits from the dead man's clothes and from dirt at the tunnel are brought into the office by Ernie Trent (Ray Montgomery) and place Zuckie "right smack at the scene of the crime." In addition, fingerprints on the cellophane of the cigarette package found in the dead man's pocket are determined to belong to Cotton Valletti - a "known member Jarrett gang."

A Los Angeles auto court sign reads: "MILBANKE MOTELS - 'All Over Los Angeles' - Reasonable Rates by Week or Month" - it is the gang's new hideout. When Cody finds Verna narcissistically admiring herself in her new mink coat (worn directly over her slip) in front of a mirror while standing on a chair, he is frantic that his mother has left to go to the market to buy strawberries "for her boy." He has learned that they have somehow been identified by "Zuckie in a morgue upstate. The T-men have tied him in with us on the tunnel job...I dunno how they did it. Somebody must have tipped 'em." Brassy Verna replies with a sarcastic remark when Cody worries that his Ma may be vulnerable to arrest:

Verna: There's always somebody tipped 'em. Never the cops are smart.
Cody: We have enough food in the house for a week. What did she have to go out for?
Verna: You like strawberries, don't ya? Well, she just had to get some for her boy.

For her smart retort, he kicks out the chair from under her, sending her sprawling backwards onto the sofa.

In the fruit-stand market in downtown Los Angeles while Ma Jarrett buys strawberries, a government agent recognizes her, phones Evans, and marks her parked car with a small strip of a rag/handkerchief attached on the rear bumper: "Where Ma goes, Cody goes."

After being notified, Evans and two other agents in cars, with more complicated, 'scientific' tracking maneuvers in three squad cars (using "the ABC method") follow Ma Jarrett at a safe distance through the busy streets. By nightfall, although they lose her, they luckily stumble upon her car in the driveway of the auto court. Based upon the intuitive hunch that Ma was being tailed, the tense gang hurriedly packs again. Verna complains: "What's the use of havin' money if you gotta start runnin' every time somebody sees a shadow?" But Cody assures his doubtful mother: "Your hunches are never wrong, Ma. We leave the sedan. That's the car they'll be lookin' for." As Cody slips into the front seat of his own parked coupe, Evans points his revolver at Cody - Cody reacts quickly, reaches for his own gun in the glove compartment, and fires a shot into Evans' right shoulder. The gang's car screeches away with Verna and Ma into the darkness of the night.

Pursued by a police car with its siren wailing, Cody swings into the San-Val Drive-In Theatre to escape. [Note: The original San-Val Drive-In was in Burbank, CA, and was regarded as the second drive-in theatre in California.] As he hands the cashier admission money, she laments the loud sound of the siren: "Happens every night. Ruins the movie." [Note: On the screen is a Warner Bros.' picture, Task Force (1949), a film starring Gary Cooper that the studio released a few weeks later, although the street-side marquee advertised a double-header: the western South of St. Louis (1949), and United Artists‘ adventure film Siren of Atlantis (1949).]

In character with his homicidal nature, Cody commands Verna to turn off - kill - the sound on the drive-in's portable loudspeaker hooked in the car, so he can explain his next calculated move:

Cody: Kill that.
Verna: This is great, but where do we go after the second feature?
Cody: You're staying put. I'm the only one goin' anyplace.
Ma: Where, Cody?
Cody: To give myself up.
Ma: What are you talking about? You haven't a chance. Four dead - it'll be the gas chamber for sure.
Cody: You don't think I'm dumb enough to give myself up to the T-men, do ya?
Verna: What's the difference? You walk into the cops and they turn ya over.

Cleverly, Cody plans a way to clear himself of the train robbery. He will outwit the law by pleading guilty to a lesser crime of a hotel payroll theft in Springfield, Illinois committed by an at-large criminal named Scratch Morton - on the same night that they were at the tunnel, thereby receiving a lesser sentence and avoiding facing the electric chair on more serious charges for the train robbery and murder. He explains how he will fake a charge to avoid conviction, by turning himself in - in Illinois:

I pulled that Springfield heist - not Scratch Morton. I'm goin' up to Illinois and take a state rap. I'll get two years at the most...I couldn't be in both places at once, could I? Little thing I cooked up before we pulled the tunnel job.

Ma Jarrett smiles proudly at her boy, while Verna insincerely vows to be faithful for two years, and Ma insinuates that the low-class Verna was a streetwalker before she married Cody:

Ma: You're the smartest there is, Cody.
Verna: Sure it's smart, but what about me? What do I do for the next two years?
Ma: (with heavy innuendo) Same as ya did before he married you.
Cody: (threatening) You better not, baby. I'll be back.
Verna: I'll be waiting for you, honey. You can trust me.

After Cody leaves them and escapes to Illinois by private plane, Ma and Verna are interrogated in Evans' office. Cody's mother, behaving like a little old lady, answers all the questions (as Verna sniffles into her handkerchief) and even recommends the drive-in movie they all watched:

Task Force. Exciting. Verna liked it a lot.

During the questioning, Ma insists: "Cody hasn't been in California for months." Evans wryly replies: "If Cody's been out of California for months, I suppose he couldn't possibly have engineered that train robbery six weeks ago." Evans has no other witnesses that Jarrett shot him in Los Angeles.

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