Our families are the people with whom we form our first social bonds and through whom we assemble our first perceptions of the outside world. As a result, our childhood experiences mold the way in which we see and react to the world around us ,for better or worse. The 1949 gangster classic White Heat, demonstrates just how influential family relationships can be as it examines mother-son crime duo Ma and Cody Jarrett. This review is a tribute to all the dedicated mothers out there who have taught us how to make it to the top of the world, and more importantly, how to avoid getting caught while we’re at it.
The story begins with the Jarrett gang, led by psychotic gangster Cody Jarrett (James Cagney), holding up a train and killing the train’s conductor in the process. The gang then flees the scene with one of their members badly burned from the steam of the train’s engine. Rather than risk being implicated in the robbery by taking him to the hospital, Cody orders one of his men to kill the injured man. When the henchman is unable to kill his friend, the injured man is able to leave just enough clues for the police to link Cody to the robbery before ultimately freezing to death after the gang leaves him alone in an isolated cabin. Determined to end Cody’s reign of terror, Detective Evans (John Archer) launches an investigation into the Jarrett gang’s activities and nearly arrests Cody, but is thwarted in his efforts when Cody takes credit for a lesser crime that occurred at the same time in order to receive a lighter prison sentence. While in prison, Cody leaves his criminal organization under the control of his equally ruthless and determined mother, Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly), who regularly updates Cody about the gang’s activities and warns him against trusting any of his fellow inmates. Meanwhile, Cody’s vindictive wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo), begins an affair with his right hand man, “Big” Ed Somers (Steve Cochran). Seeing opportunity presenting itself in Cody’s absence, Ed and Verna scheme to have Ma and Cody murdered in an effort to gain control of the gang themselves. When he learns of his mother’s death, Cody is unable to restrain himself any longer and concocts an elaborate scheme to escape from prison and obtain his revenge all the while unaware that his partner in the scheme, likable inmate Vic Pardo (Edmun O’Brien), is actually an undercover cop working for Evans’ investigation. The film’s series of plots, crosses, and double-crosses ultimately finishes in a climax that is nothing short of explosive.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the film, and certainly the element that separates the film from other entries in the gangster genre, is the unique focus upon Cody’s relationship with Ma. While preparing his investigation into Cody’s crimes, Evans learns that Cody’s one confidante and only true ally is his mother. He also learns that Cody has been fiercely attached to his mother since childhood, and that as a boy Cody even went so far as to feign migraines in order to gain her attention, until the headaches eventually became painfully real. While Cody’s relationships with his wife and criminal associates are based upon personal gain, his relationship with Ma is surprisingly tender, and in a different context, could be viewed as heartwarming. Ma is a truly self-sacrificing mother, living life on the run from the police and under the constant threat of her son’s dangerous cohorts all in an effort to ensure that her son makes it to the “top of the world”. Although he is a grown man, Ma continues to nurture Cody through his migraines and mood swings, while also keeping watch on his business and providing sound advice regarding how to manage it. Despite her devotion to her son, however, Ma is just as dangerous and cunning as Cody and in many ways acts as the ‘power behind the power’ in the Jarrett gang. As a result, Ma’s death is the ultimate loss for Cody as he loses his confidante, mentor, best friend, partner in crime, and mother all in one fell blow. The severity of this loss is what finally pushes Cody to pursue his reckless quest for revenge even though he is aware of how greatly the odds for success are stacked against him.
|A true Kodak moment|
The film’s performances are uniformly superb and lend an element of gritty realism to an already intelligent script. Virginia Mayo adds a touch of desperate frustration to her portrayal of Cody’s greedy wife that makes Verna a truly complex character, who stands out in a genre littered with stock love interests and flashy femme fatales. Similarly, Steve Cochran and John Archer lend believable turns as Cody’s two greatest enemies, Big Ed and Detective Evans, and provide the film with capable adversaries for Cody to go up against. Edmund O’Brien’s is equally realistic as both undercover cop Hank Fallon and Vic Pardo, the crook whose identity he assumes, which lends credibility to his character’s ability to manipulate Cody into trusting him. Even amongst all of the film’s excellent players, there is no doubt that the film belongs to James Cagney and Margaret Wycherly as Cody and Ma. The two are equal parts streetwise grit and familial tenderness ,and every one of their scenes contains an eerie chemistry that lights up the screen. In Wycherly’s hands Ma is a fascinating contradiction as she alternates between her maternal love for Cody and her hard-as-nails approach to business. Cagney brings Cody to vibrant life making Cody both one of the most entertaining gangsters in cinema and also one of film’s most intriguing villains. From agony during a crippling migraine, to brash arrogance around his wife and cohorts, to childish dependence upon Ma’s guidance, and finally animalistic rage upon learning of Ma’s death, Cagney plays a full gamut of emotions in his portrayal of Cody and does so with skill and intensity. Although Cagney built his acting career upon the success of his many gangster roles, it was with the force of nature that is Cody Jarrett in White Heat that Cagney reached the top of his career and created his most unforgettable portrayal.
Cagney and company truly hit the mother-load of the gangster genre in the incendiary White Heat. The film combines underworld thrills, gritty dialogue, and a sly take on psychoanalysis to create a unique vision of post-war America and modern crime. The cast’s electric performances bring each of the film's characters to vital and often violent life, creating a drama that viewers can’t help but be drawn into. If you’re looking for the top of cinema, look no further than White Heat.
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