The Film: White Heat (1949)

The Principals: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien

The Premise: Cody Jarrett (Cagney) is a little ball of greed and sadism.   He has no compunctions about killing anyone — innocent bystanders, witnesses, even members of his own gang.   He revels in his nastiness and it’s proved pretty profitable for him.   He has only two weaknesses (and it’s not his wife, who he can take or leave) — his mother, and his migraines which are said to be imaginary, brought on by the mental illness he inherited from his father.

After pulling a train heist, the Jarrett gang is hot. Too hot. Cody decides to turn himself in.   He’s a brainy little guy, and has a trump card of a confession — he’ll go to Illinois, confess to a hotel heist he didn’t actually commit, and do a mere two years in prison.

But the feds are on to his little plan.  They’ve arranged for the Illinois courts to play dumb and play along in order to put one of their own in Cody’s cell.  Hank Fallon (O’Brien) is assigned the unenviable job of bunking up with Cody, gaining his trust, and getting the name of his money launderer.   Will he be able to overcome Cody’s suspicions? Can he survive prison? Will all go according to plan?

Is It Good: It’s amazing. It’s a classic for a reason, and it plays as fresh and crisp today as it did in 1949.  It’s a thriller that can stand with any flashier, bloodier, and louder cousin from the 1980s on.

Cagney was an electric performer, and he was probably never better than in White Heat.  Pop culture probably regards him as a bit of a Halloween caricature, all stogies and “Ya dirty rat!”, but everyone who really watches his work knows he was more than that.  Nowhere is that more evident than in the mother-dominated, mentally unbalanced Jarrett.   It’s not his mother complex that jumps out at me, though, but his casual cruelty.   We gloat over how brutal HBO shows can get, but Cagney did it first, even if you don’t always see the blood under the black and white.

His performance is aided considerably by O’Brien, who has gone a little underrated against the greats of film noir.   (And it’s hard to compete with the heavyweights in this genre, admittedly, even when you’re a solid character actor.  Anyway, check out O’Brien’s D.O.A., it’s a good one. )  Fallon is a quick match for Cody, who smells a rat, and is able to bounce back all of the gangster’s suspicions without seeming superhuman or cartoony. He’s just a damn good cop.    Bud White and Harry Callahan would love to have this guy as their partner.

Is It Worth A Look: Absolutely.   The “Top of the world!” moment may be overquoted (and most of those who babble it probably don’t even know it’s dark origin), and Cagney’s gangsters caricatured, but this a film that should be watched and studied by all aspiring action writers.  What’s striking about it to jaded modern eyes is its script.  It’s so damn tight. There’s not a single moment that doesn’t payoff. There’s no throwaway dialogue.  Even a casual line about fishing or a hot blonde loops back into the story in a terrific way.  In an ideal cinematic world, every thriller script would be as satisfying, coherent, and waterproof as White Heat.  A ton of films have ripped off its explosive ending; few have ripped off the concussive beats of the character conversations.

It’s also worth watching purely as a museum piece.   There’s a reason White Heat couldn’t be remade except in spirit, and that’s the archiac technology the last act hinges on.  Marvel at a world without helicopters, GPS, cell phones, and alarm systems…and then wonder why we don’t really nab crimes in progress that much sooner than we did in the late 1940s. Criminals! They’re always faster than we are.

Random Anecdotes:  The reason Harry Callahan is chowing down on a hot dog as he first shoots that .44 Magnum is because Eastwood is paying homage to Cagney, who gnaws a chicken leg as he shoots an associate through a car trunk.  You’re a brainy bunch, so you probably already knew that, but there may be one lonely soul out there who doesn’t.

And some film tech guy or girl may correct this, but IMDB tells me that they didn’t have fake bullets or squibs back in the day, and those are real low-velocity bullets pinging around in the finale.  So watch it, and then scoff at the latest pretty face who claims their stunts were “super dangerous.”