Warner Brothers was a studio that had a natural affiliation with crime dramas. Being the first major studio to properly embrace and harden the genre, often to the point of controversy at the time, their output shows a knowledge of the criminal world and a keen eye for good drama. This started relatively early on in the studio’s output with the effecting and powerful The Public Enemy (1931), produced as a message to young people stating that crime simply doesn’t pay. These films foresaw the dark territory that film noir was to traverse after the second world war and films like Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), He Was Her Man (1934) and The Roaring Twenties (1939) could all be potential noirs even though they precede the official dating of the movement.
However, another element connects the previous films mentioned to our film this week. White Heat is made years after its lead’s first tough guy film yet James Cagney (who starred in all the above films) is the quintessential tough nut criminal. Directed by Raoul Walsh, White Heat is as tough as crime films got before the easing of censorship in the 1960s with a streak of violence and genuine madness etched right through to its core.
The film opens with Cody Jarrett and his gang of thugs robbing a train carrying thousands of dollars. This side plot of the first heist is gripping but is merely there to lead to the main crux of the film; Cody’s time in jail. However, the side plot does sketch out some essential character traits and visual styles that are later expanded on in the film. Jarrett is a ruthless criminal; perhaps more ruthless than any previously bar Scarface. He leaves his wounded accomplice to die after an accident in the first heist. He kills civilians impulsively, even when they agree to help and his tempter is quick and fiery. Though he mistreats virtually all the characters on screen (including his femme fatal wife played in marvellously slimy way by Virginia Mayo) there is one person close that is to his heart.
The film’s now famous ending line “Made it Ma! Top of the world” has a massively powerful effect thanks to a complex and detailed relationship built up on screen between Jarrett and his similarly criminal mother. In some Freudian themed hints of disturbia, the film shows Jarrett adoring his doting and spoiling mother while abusing and using his double crossing wife making him a vile and gripping on screen presence.
When the heat gets too much from the first heist, Jarrett takes the fall for another crime in a separate state, meaning he gets two years rather than the electric chair. An undercover cop is sent in to the jail to become friends with him so that he can tie Cody to the crime but gets more than he bargained for as Cody turns out to be far more ruthless and smarter than he first figured. The film’s second heist involving the chemical plant and tanker truck is the high point of the film. Not only does it lead to its dramatic and iconic climax, it presents a western style shoot out and has extra layers of tension due to a multitude of factors including the volatile nature of Cody, the chemicals in the plant and the trigger happy police.
Though tame when compared to the ultra violent crime films of today, there’s something sizzling of White Heat that means it still has power. Cagney gives one of his best performances and is one of cinema’s first, most genuine and endlessly watchable psychopaths.