White Heat, Jimmy Cagney’s return to the gangster genre for the first time in a decade to revive his sagging career, is bookended by blasts of heat: from a steam engine, burning beyond recognition a member whom gang leader Cody Jarrett leaves for dead, failing to recognize him as someone for whom he is responsible, a younger, alternate version of himself; from the blowup of an oil refinery, sending Cody to hell: “Finally made it, Ma: Top o’ the world!”
From the start, Cody’s world has been upside-down and inside-out. As a child, battling siblings for his mother’s attention, Cody feigned headaches that have since become all too real, still requiring Ma Cody’s soothing touch to quiet these storms inside his brain. Guilt-ridden, the woman has devoted herself to her criminal son’s care, forsaking her other offspring. Viewers are simply wrong when they (ridiculously) say that Cody is “in love with his mother.” Psychotic and infantile, Cody is incapable of loving anyone, including wife Verna; rather, perpetually afraid of losing his mother’s love, he egotistically clings to her guiltily devoted image. After Ma’s death (plugged in the back by Verna), his last attempted robbery conforms to the story of the Trojan Horse that his mother read to him as a child.
This postwar criminal/cop thriller is nothing like its 1930s counterparts starring Cagney, their emphasis on social context having been replaced by criminal psychology in a world upended by the war. (Cody’s profits from theft are enlarged through the postwar European black market.) Of all the thirties gangster classics, only Howard Hawks’s brilliant Scarface starring Paul Muni (1932) stressed a criminal’s psychosis. But director Raoul Walsh, here at the top of his game, has more than Hawks in mind. White Heat is his hommage to the cinema of Fritz Lang, whose determinism he relaxes a little, but whose geometrics (such as inside the prison housing Cody) and whose eerie otherworldliness (such as inside the belly of the empty oil truck—visually, a space ship; symbolically, Ma’s womb) conjure images of science fiction. More than the pursuit of Cody by federal authorities accounts for the methodical nature of this riveting film.
Intense, Cagney is superb as Cody, a frightening brute with flashes of charm. However, Edmond O’Brien as federal agent Hank Fallon, who infiltrates Cody’s gang by more or less acting maternally towards Cody, and Margaret Wycherly, once Sergeant York’s Ma (Hawks, 1941) and now Cody’s, are also excellent. Only Virginia Mayo significantly detracts as Verna, whose heartlessness owes nothing to insanity.
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