White Heat, a 1949 film starring James Cagney, is on many levels both an entertaining and fascinating film. It can be viewed, like many films, by sitting back and watching without having to follow the plot too closely. At the same time, its characters and storyline would make for an interesting study in psychoanalysis or as a subject for a film essay.
For anyone reading this post who has not seen it, then the following text does, to use an oft-used line from film and TV journalism, contain spoilers.
Like many good films, White Heat has the required components: an engaging storyline, developed characters, strong acting, quotable dialogue and a number of memorable scenes.
The most interesting aspect of the film is the character of Cody Jarrett and, more specifically, his relationship with his mother, known simply as Ma Jarrett. Cody is a violent and psychotic criminal, a remorseless killer who does not seem to truly care about anyone except his mother. Even Cody’s wife Verna cannot compete with Ma for his attention. Ma Jarrett is both a constructive and destructive influence on her son. She is the one who can keep him under control, urging him to get “on top of the world.” It becomes apparent that Ma is the one who is holding Cody together, preventing him from “cracking at the seams.”
When Cody learns of his beloved Ma’s death while he is serving a stretch on the inside, in one of the film’s best-known scenes, there are signs that Cody is beginning to crack at this point having lost all semblance of stability which Ma brought to his life.
Following her death, Cody starts to lean more heavily on Fallon, an undercover police officer going by the name of Pardo, who is tasked with infiltrating Cody’s inner circle and gaining his trust as the law enforcers attempt to bring Cody and his henchmen to justice.
In the latter stages of the film, when the unstable Cody learns of Pardo’s true identity, he finally “breaks” leading to the film’s climax as the police close in.
By this point, we all know that Cody could never be taken alive to face justice and the death penalty (as happened to Cagney’s character Rocky Sullivan in 1938’s Angels with Dirty Faces.) It is fitting for Cody to have a more dramatic exit. Stranded on top of a large gas storage tank, with no possible means of escape, chuckling uncontrollably to himself he triggers a fire and cries out “Made it Ma, top of the world!” before being engulfed in the ensuing explosion. As onscreen exits go, this is surely up with the best of them.
Eight years after first watching it, White Heat remains one of my favourite films.