White Heat is one of the greatest gangster movies I’ve ever seen. Yet it was only nominated for Best Story at the Academy Awards. Like so many other classics, I only knew White Heat for the famous and often misquoted closing line “Made it ma! Top of the world.” Ironically it was my own ma who strongly recommended I watch the movie. James Cagney broke typecast when he starred in Yankee Doodle Dandy, but returning to the tough guy roles that made him famous was his only option in the late 40’s. Cagney didn’t get along with Warner Bros, so it was an awkward reunion.
White Heat delves deep into the twisted mind of a gangster. Arthur “Cody” Jarrett is the remorseless head of a criminal gang. Though he seems heartless on the surface, Cody is a serious mama’s boy who tries to make her proud. Even though “Ma” is every bit the criminal mastermind he is. After a great train robbery, the Jarret gang hideout in Los Angeles till the heat dies down. The U.S. Treasury stays hot on their tail when Cody gives himself up. Most of the movie takes place in jail where undercover agent Hank Fallon is tasked with getting information out of Cody.
There’s betrayal and close calls around every corner. After playing a similar character in The Best Years of Our Lives, Virginia Mayo now plays Cody’s wife Verna who betrays her incarcerated husband for “Big Ed.” When Cody escapes to rob a chemical plant, it’s all over for him when Hank contacts the police. Not only does Cody suffer from debilitating headaches, but he goes completely insane with one last rampage. It costs him his life, but he’s finally on top of the world. Cagney made the role his own and should have been recognized for it, because White Heat goes out in a blaze of glory.