White Heat : James Cagney made it to the Top of the World in one of the greatest screen performances ever

James Cagney gave a performance of a lifetime as gangster Cody Jarrett in Raoul Walsh’s classic film White Heat (1949) that completes 70 years.


Made It Ma, Top of the world

One of the most famous exit lines in movies, spoken by the great James Cagney in the 1949 film White Heat. James Cagney was the quintessential Warner Bros. star. Rough and tough and  not particularly good looking . He was short and stout and was about fifty years old when he played Cody Jarrett in White Heat. But he was supremely charismatic, versatile and powerful as a screen performer. He talked fast , moved fast, stood defiant and had a patented devilish, mischievous grin that was perfect for the gangster roles that he played so well and was to an extend typecast.He broke out as a star playing a gangster in the 1931 Warner film Public Enemy. And for more than a decade , he was the top star  of Warner and also the most belligerent and combative star on the lot. He frequently got into  fights with Studio chief Jack Warner for better pay and better roles. Finally, after winning a best actor Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942, where he proved his versatility in a singing , dancing role, he left the studio. But his films post his split from Warner were not successful, either artistically or commercially, so he was forced tot return to Warner at the end of the 1940’s. White Heat was the first film after his return and he choose to go back to his bread and butter role of the gangster. The character of Cody Jarrett is an extreme, noirish version of the Tom Powers character he played in Public Enemy,except here he is  amoral and psychotic without any redeeming virtues. There he had a famous scene where he thrusts a piece of grapefruit on his moll’s face. Here he kicks his wife , while she is standing on a chair. Both Films feature iconic death scenes for Cagney. But the biggest difference between the two Films was the period in which it was made. Public Enemy was a depression era gangster melodrama, where the hero coming from a poor neighborhood, falls into a life of crime to provide for himself and his family. But he dies tragically at the end, with the usual moral of crime doesn’t pay splashed all over. White Heat was the product of post war American cinema, when it had started probing deeply psychological issues in a brutal, violent world. It adhered closely to the new aesthetic; of a darker, bleaker cinematic landscape populated by morally ambiguous or plain amoral characters, that was later termed as film noir that originated during the paranoid, disillusioned atmosphere of World War II and continued into the post war period. Both White Heat and the character of Cody Jarrett works as a sort of metaphor for the post war anxieties and traumas that manifests as psychotic or neurotic impulses and brutal violence in a modern, technologically advanced atomic age.


More than a decade before Norman Bates and Mrs. Bates wrecked havoc in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, there was the twisted mother son duo of Cody Jarrett(James Cagney) and Ma Jarrett(Margaret Wycherly) in White Heat.Cody Jarrett is one of the most unique characters in movie history. On one hand, he is a sadistic, neurotic, sociopath gangster; an enfant terrible who is as much a source of terror to his own gang members as he is to the law and law abiding citizens of the land. On the other hand , he is a compulsive mama’s boy, a kid in a man’s body, who ignores his sultry wife Verna(Virginia Mayo) and prefers the company and counsel of his mother.His mother is equally devious as Cody  and she is his fifty fifty partner in business.She is the brain and Cody is the brawn behind their organisation. As a child Cody used to fake headaches so as to attract the attention of his mother. But as he grew up, these headaches became real and starts manifesting as violent seizures that would immobilize him for a period, thus making him vulnerable in front of his gang members. At the beginning of the film,  we see Cody being afflicted by such a seizure and being nursed by his mother. The middle aged Cody is so shaken by the sudden seizure and so moved by his mother’s love and care that he sits on her lap like an affectionate child.”It’s like having a red-hot buzz saw inside my head,” he tells his Ma about the pain he feels. No explanation is provided in the film for the reasons for these seizures, thus keeping the mystique of Cody’s character intact. But we realize that Cody shares both a strong emotional as well as a business relationship with his mother.  Afterward, Ma and Cody have a quick drink and toast, “Top of the world!”.

The scene sets the relationship dynamic between mother and son. The mother has total control of her son and the son, who otherwise is quite a terrifying monster, becomes as gentle as a puppy dog in his mother’s lap. This psychological dimension of the mother son relationship as well as the other depravities and discrepancies in   Cody’s character takes the film far beyond its regular gangster film roots into Film Noir territory. The greatness of James Cagney’s performance in the film is how brilliantly he plays both these contrasting aspects of the character.Not just that he plays it,he plays it as one whole , that we never ever for a moment doubt that the guy who is so ruthlessly and gleefully killing people can also be sitting on his mother’s lap. The main reason Cagney is able to pull off these contrasts is, that apart from being a very intense and powerful actor, he always had a child like mischievous streak in his personality. He is very different from other Warner gangster stars like Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft , who are all, through and through, very serious actors. We talked about his devilish grin earlier, there is a childlike, pursing and biting of lips and twisting of eyebrows that goes along with that, which gives an impression of a naughty child when he’s angry.  There are several scenes in the film where the character could have turned to caricature and the performance cartoonish. But Cagney plays it at a perfect pitch, where we never stops believing in the genuineness of the character. His training in dancing and vaudeville gave his movements gracefulness and a balletic quality and helped him to improvise a lot as an actor. A lot of the scenes, like the one where he sits on his mother’s lap, were improvised by Cagney on the set.


Another very famous scene from the film, which Cagney improvised , is where Cody gets the news of his mother’s death.  He is in the mess hall of  the Illinois State prison.Cody is serving  one- to three-years . it was a ruse he concocted to escape a larger crime of robbing a mail train in the Sierra Nevada mountains and killing four members of the train’s crew. Ma had  visited him  earlier in prison and informed him of his wife and his fellow gang member Big Ed’s betrayal and how they are planning to eliminate him inside the prison. She had  vowed to take care of Big Ed herself in spite of  Cody’s insistence that he would take care of them after he gets out.  Back to the scene, it is superbly composed and shot by director Walsh. The scene is so brilliant and adds so many layers to the film and character of Cody that it deserves a piece of it’s own.  All the inmates of the prison are having a quiet meal. Then Cody inquires an inmate, who has just arrived from the outside, about his mother. The fellow is at the end of the table and the question had to be whispered from one prisoner to the other and the answer whispered back in a line. The answer is that Cody’s Ma is dead. We see the final prisoner hesitating a moment before he softly whispers the news into his ear. Cody stands up shocked. A low moan builds inside him that turns into an agonizing scream and then he  goes berserk in the mess hall; it’s looks as if a monster residing inside him had been unleashed. And the film can be read as a metaphor for a monster movie. Ma Jarrett is Frankenstein and her creation Cody is the monster. As long as Ma was there, she kept his monstrous tendencies under check. The moment the creator dies, the orphaned monster unleashes himself. He jumps on  the tables and staggers out of the hall hitting a number of guards before being overpowered and dragged, screaming, to the infirmary. it’s a sight to behold, this diminutive man beating up guards twice his size. His performance is so powerful and so truthful that he makes the scene totally believable. This scene ; that shows how madly attached to this mother Cody is and how he  suffers when he hears the news of her death leading him to impulsive violence, is a good indicator of the Noir aspect of this film . The scene establishes the criminal protagonist’s neuroses, the violent behavior brought about by his obsession for his mother, that go beyond just psychotic violence. The scene is also one of the greatest portrayals of Oedipal angst in Films. It’s  similar to Oedipus going mad, blinding himself and staggering into the wilderness after his mother commits suicide. Thus Cody attains the dimension of a doomed, tragic hero or rather a doomed Noir hero here. 


The film is such a James Cagney tour de force that we forget that Cody’s story is just one half of this well crafted Noir crime drama from director Raoul Walsh. The other half is an intense police procedural, with undercover agent Hank Fallon(Edmond O’Brien) infiltrating Cody’s gang to bring him down.Hank befriends Cody in prison as a fellow inmate with the false name of Vic Pardo. Hank nurses Cody when he had those violent seizures in jail. Thus Hank becomes as a sort of surrogate Ma Jarrett to Cody. So when Cody escapes from prison after Ma’s death, Hank tags along with him.Once out of jail Cody kills Big Ed as revenge for killing Ma Jarrett. In actuality , it was Verna who had killed Ma, but she convinces Cody that it was Big Ed’s doing. The scene were he kills Big Ed is pure Cagney. He first terrorizes Verna in the garage. A terrified Verna puts the blame on Ed. Cagney goes upstairs and shoots Ed in the back. He then majestically takes Verna by the arm  ,as a  king returning from exile reclaiming his queen,  and leads her to Ed’s dead body. He then kicks Ed’s body down the stairs with the words “Catch“, to the fellow gang members, with the glee of a kid kicking a football. Cody then plans to steal a chemical plant’s payroll by using a large, empty tanker  as a kind of Trojan horse- Another Greek mythological reference related to his mom. Though Cody has lost his mother, he still lives by her words and advice. The Trojan horse story was told to him by his mother when he was a kid and now he intends to put it to use. It’s very much a precursor to Norman Bates, where the mother continues to control the son from her grave. There is a scene where Cody talks intimately and almost poetically to Hank of his grief for his dead mother, and how he was just ‘talking’ to her when wandering in the brush outside. There will be many more instances in the film when he will address his ma directly.


Meanwhile, Hank is on the job informing on Cody. He attaches a signal transmitter  to the  tanker. The police track the tanker and prepare an ambush. This is a lengthy sequence where director Walsh spends a lot of time showcasing the cutting edge technology used by the lawmen to nab the criminals. The scene work both ways. On one hand it shows how the police were able to eliminate the street gangsters using their superior technology. On the other, it shows the David vs Goliath situation that Cody and gang, working with just their wits and  muscle , were facing in the new technological age. It does sways the viewers sympathy towards Cody . It’s a pet theme of director Walsh, as evidenced in movies like High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart and Roaring twenties, his previous great collaboration with Cagney. They are all about the proto-male, the old world men, mainly outlaws, who are swept away by a new breed of techno savvy and business savvy new age men or probably a Group, a combined force, representing either the law or criminal\business corporations. The film does spend a lot of time in scenes of surveillance, analysis and planning of police strategy in dealing with the outlaws. The reason why Cody’s Trojan horse operation does not succeed in the end is because the law already has it’s Trojan horse, in the form of Hank, within Cody’s organization.


And so the film builds to it’s explosive climax. Cody and gang gets into both the plant and the payroll office, but as the men begin to cut through the safe, the tanker’s driver, ex-con “Bo” Creel, recognizes Hank as the “copper” who arrested him four years prior. Realizing that cops have surrounded the plant, Hank suddenly reveals his real identity and points a gun at Cody. Cody’s reaction to this revelation, as played by James Cagney,  is one for the ages. Words cannot do justice to the range of emotions that Cagney portrays here in a matter of  seconds as he says “A copper, a copper, how do you like that boys? A copper and his name is Fallon. And we went for it, I went for it. Treated him like a kid brother. And I was gonna split fifty-fifty with a copper!“. And as he is delivering these lines, he is both crying and laughing. He’s being serious and sarcastic. He’s enjoying it and loathing it. He’s doing a lot, lot more all at once, it’s a mix of Opera and Kabuki.  Suffice to say that I never seen anything like it. This revelation, this betrayal from someone he considered a brother, drives an already unstable Cody right over the edge. It’s very similar to the breakdown scene in the mess hall after hearing his mother’s death. There he lost his mother and Hank took her place. But with Hank’s betrayal, he is totally lost it and now he becomes suicidal. This and the earlier scene from the mess hall should have sealed the best actor Oscar for Cagney. But as it happens with truly great performances, he wasn’t even nominated. 


 Bo creel manages to overpower Hank and Cody takes him hostage and bargains with the cops outside. But they refuse to do any deals with Cody. They ask him to drop the weapons and come out. Cody’s answer:

Come out with your hands up, the man says. How do you like that Ma? Here’s my answer. You dirty -“

He then fires his shotgun and a violent shootout begins between cops and gangsters. Hank escapes from the gang’s clutches and join the cops outside. The cops give the final warning to Cody to surrender, but he  flees to the top of a gigantic,globe-shaped gas storage tank. After Hank mortally shoots Cody with a rifle, Cody, who by now is  completely gone, fires at the tank, which bursts into flames, and shouts “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” before the tank explodes consuming Cody in a huge ball of fire resembling a nuclear explosion. That’s the last time he will talk to his ma and in a way, he is saying Ma , I am coming to you.

White Heat marked the Pinnacle of both Cagney’s and director Walsh’s careers. Though they would continue to do good work after this, none of them came anywhere close. Walsh was a typical studio era director, like Michael Curtiz, who had his auteurial tics, both technically and thematically. Apart from the documentary style detailing of police procedures, there was a kinetic, muscular tone to his Films that’s setup in the opening train robbery scene itself. It also sets up the man Vs machine theme that’s a big part of this film. Another one of his pet themes were the portrayal of trashy , vulgar women. As seen here in the character of Verna. She is of course the typical Noir femme fatale,who is bothered only with her survival. She is presented even more trashily here; as snoring in bed and spitting out chewing gum before kissing Cagney and of course she shoots Ma Jarrett in the back.

James Cagney retired from acting in 1962. But he returned to face the camera in 1981 for Ragtime. That was his final film before he passed away in 1986. In 1975, when Cagney became the first actor to receive the AFI Lifetime achievement award,a clip from White Heat was shown , which is my favorite scene from the film. It’s the scene after Cody’s jailbreak, when he has the thug Parker as hostage inside the trunk of his car. Parker complains that it’s stuffy inside and he need some air. Cagney, who is casually eating a chicken wing says:

Oh, stuffy, huh? I’ll give ya a litte air.
[pulls a gun from his pants and shoots four times into the trunk]

After watching the scene, John Wayne spoke about Cagney and he said that was a quick witted thing that Cagney did, I would have done something dumb like opening the trunk. The moment brought out the trademark devilish, mischievous smile from Cagney, who was sitting in the audience.

Cagney’s performance as Cody Jarrett is one of the most influential performances in move history. You can see the influences in everyone; from Al Pacino in Scarface to Jack Nicholson’s joker in Batman and Joe pesci in Goodfellas. The similarity , especially with the lead character and the ultra violent climax, with Pacino’s Scarface is very much obvious. Cagney has been admired by several actor’s down the line, from Marlon Brando to John Travolta . Another big admirer of Cagney was director Stanley Kubrick who preferred the performances in his Films to have that Cagney’s exaggerated, Kabuki like quality. You can see it in the performances of George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove, Malcolm McDowell in A clockwork Orange and of course Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Another Legendary actor\director Orson Welles considered Cagney to be the greatest actor ever to appear in motion pictures.


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