White Heat: One of James Cagney’s Finest Roles

James Cagney in White Heat. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Oscar-winning actor James Cagney delivers one of his finest roles in Warner Bros. gangster drama White Heat after being away from the genre.

The psychotic Arthur “Cody” Jarrett (James Cagney) is the leader of the aptly named Jarrett gang.  While Cody is married to Verna (Virginia Mayo), one could certainly make the argument that he’s really married to his mother.  The relationship here is certainly a character study in its own right.

The gang robs a train in the mountains.  Caught by the authorities, Cody decides to confess to a different crime that took place in Illinois.  By confessing to another crime, he ends up with a shorter prison sentence.  Meanwhile, Phillip Evans (John Archer) assigns agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) to go undercover as Vic Pardo.  There’s a lot that happens both inside and outside of prison.  “Big Ed” Somers (Steve Cochran) takes over the gang while Verna also joins him.  That’s not the worst of it for Cody because he soon learns of his mother’s death.  As such, Cody starts planning his escape from prison.

One of the ideas to come out of White Heat is the idea of a gangster having a mental illness.  We also see a character with a strong attachment to his mother.  While I haven’t seen Psycho yet, this mother-son complex certainly begs a comparison between character relationships in the two films.  Don’t worry because I’ll be watching the Hitchcock film in due time.  Perhaps the two films could make for the perfect double feature?

It isn’t only that Cagney was away from the genre for so long.  The actor, who grew to fame with the Warner Brothers gangster dramas, was also away from the studio.  He made the decision to walk away in 1942 after starring in Yankee Doodle Dandy.  The role would win him an Oscar but his Warner days were done for the time being.  Of course, he came back for White Heat.  Following the film, he would go on to make a few more films with the studio through 1955.  If Jack Warner had his way, it’s very well possible that Cagney might not have even been considered.  The fact is that co-writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts had suggested the veteran actor for the role.  Watching the film now, it’s honestly hard to imagine anybody else in the role.

White Heat still remains one of the greatest gangster films of all time.

DIRECTOR:  Raoul Walsh
SCREENWRITERS:  Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts
CAST:  James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran, John Archer, Wally Cassell, Fred Clark

Warner Bros. opened White Heat on September 2, 1949. Grade: 4.5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.