White Heat

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White Heat
theatrical release poster
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Produced by Louis F. Edelman
Screenplay by Ivan Goff
Ben Roberts
Story by Virginia Kellogg
Starring James Cagney
Virginia Mayo
Edmond O'Brien
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Sidney Hickox
Edited by Owen Marks
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • September 2, 1949 (1949-09-02)
Running time
114 minutes
Country United States
Language English

White Heat is a 1949 film noir starring James Cagney, Virginia Mayo and Edmond O'Brien and featuring Margaret Wycherly and Steve Cochran.[1] Directed by Raoul Walsh from the Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts screenplay, it is based on a story by Virginia Kellogg. Considered one of the classic gangster films, White Heat was added to the National Film Registry in 2003 as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress.


James Cagney as Cody Jarrett.

Arthur "Cody" Jarrett (James Cagney) is a ruthless, deranged criminal gang leader. Although married to Verna (Virginia Mayo), Cody is overly attached to his equally crooked and determined mother, "Ma" Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly), his only real confidante (Cody's father died in an insane asylum). Cody suffers from debilitating headaches, and Ma consoles him - even sitting him on her lap and giving him a shot of whiskey with the toast, "Top of the world," an expression she uses more than once.

Cody and his gang rob a mail train in the High Sierra at the California border, resulting in the deaths of four members of the train crew as well as Cody's accomplice, Zuckie (Ford Rainey). With the help of informants, the police close in and Cody shoots and injures US Treasury investigator Philip Evans (John Archer) in Los Angeles. Cody then confesses to a lesser crime committed in Springfield, Illinois, which an associate committed at the same time as the train robbery, thus providing Cody with a false alibi and he receives a one-to-three year sentence. This does not deceive Philip, who plants undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O'Brien) in Cody's cell in the Illinois State Penitentiary, where Hank goes by the name Vic Pardo. His main task is to find the "Trader," a fence who launders stolen money for Cody.

On the outside, "Big Ed" Somers (Steve Cochran), Cody's ambitious right-hand man, has designs on the leadership of Cody's gang and his treacherous wife Verna. He pays a convict, Roy Parker (Paul Guilfoyle), to kill Cody. In the prison workplace, Parker arranges to drop a heavy piece of machinery on Cody but Hank pushes him out of the way, saving his life. Ma visits and vows to take care of Big Ed, despite Cody's attempts to dissuade her. He starts worrying and decides to break out. Before he can, Cody learns that Ma is dead and goes berserk in the mess hall, being dragged away to the infirmary. Although feigning a Psychosis (loss of contact with reality), he concocts a plan to escape the prison. In the infirmary he is diagnosed as having homicidal psychosis and recommended for a transfer to an asylum.

Cody takes hostages and escapes, along with cell mates Hank and Parker. Parker is locked in the trunk of the getaway car. Later, when Parker complains, "It's stuffy, I need some air," while calmly snacking on a chicken leg, Cody replies, "Oh, stuffy, huh? I'll give ya a little air" and fires his gun several times into the trunk. The remaining men head for California. On hearing of Cody's escape, Big Ed nervously waits for him to show up. Verna tries slipping away but Cody catches her. Although she has murdered Ma by shooting her in the back, she convinces him that Big Ed killed Ma and Cody guns down Big Ed. The gang welcomes the escapees, including Hank, for whom Cody has developed a genuine liking. Cody insists on sharing the proceeds from their robberies with him, stating, "I split even with Ma, didn't I?"

A stranger (Fred Clark) shows up at the gang's isolated country hideout, asking to use the phone. Everyone expects the stranger to be murdered ("Looks like Big Ed's gonna have company"). To Hank's surprise, a trusting Cody introduces him to the stranger, who is Daniel "The Trader" Winston, the fence whom Hank was to track down. Cody intends to steal the payroll at a chemical plant in Long Beach, California, by using a large tank truck as a Trojan Horse. Hank manages to get a message to Philip and an ambush is laid. The gang gets into the plant but the driver, "Bo" Creel (Ian MacDonald), recognizes Vic Pardo as Hank Fallon ("He pinched me four years ago").

The police surround the building, and Philip calls on Cody to surrender but Cody decides to fight it out. When the police fire tear gas into the office, Hank manages to escape. The police gun down most of Cody's henchmen and Cody guns down those who try giving themselves up. The police take Verna, who tried to barter with Philip for leniency but was instead rebuffed. Cody then flees to the top of a gigantic, globe-shaped gas storage tank. When Hank shoots Cody several times with a rifle, Cody starts firing at the tank and shouts, "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" The tank and several adjoining ones explode, killing Cody.


Verna (Virginia Mayo) and Arthur "Cody" Jarrett (James Cagney) in the trailer for White Heat.


The character of Cody Jarrett was based on New York murderer Francis Crowley, who engaged in a pitched battle with police in the spring of 1931 at the age of 18.[2] Executed in the electric chair on January 21, 1932, his last words were: "Send my love to my mother." Another inspiration may have been Fred Barker and Arthur Barker, gangsters of the 1930s, famously devoted to their domineering mother, Ma Barker.[3][4] The train robbery which opens the film, appears to have been closely based on the robbery of Southern Pacific's "Gold Special" by the DeAutremont Brothers in 1923.

Production notes[edit]

White Heat was filmed between May 5 and mid-June 1949.[5] Filming locations included the Southern Pacific railroad tunnel in the Santa Susana Mountains near Chatsworth, California, and the Shell Oil plant at 198th Street and Figueroa in Torrance, California, where the final climactic shoot-out was filmed.[6][7] The outdoor theatre that Cody, Verna and Ma duck into is the now-demolished San Val Drive-In at 2720 Winona Avenue in Burbank, California - the second drive-in theater to open in California, after the "Drive-In Theatre" on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. The marquee at the San Val lists Warner Bros.' South of St. Louis and United Artists' Siren of Atlantis, however, seen on the screen, are action scenes from Warner Bros.' Task Force, which Ma refers to by name in the film. All three films were released in September of 1949, the same time as White Heat.


Critical reaction to the film was positive, and today it is considered a classic. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "the acme of the gangster-prison film" and praised its "thermal intensity".[8] Tim Dirks on the website Filmsite.org writes that the film may have also inspired many other successful films:[9]

This classic film anticipated the heist films of the early '50s (for example John Huston's 1950 The Asphalt Jungle and Stanley Kubrick's 1956 The Killing), accentuated the semi-documentary style of films of the period (the 1948 The Naked City), and contained film-noirish elements, including the shady black-and-white cinematography, the femme fatale character, and the twisted psyche of the criminal gangster.

— Tim Dirks

White Heat was listed in Time magazine's top 100 films of all time. Based upon both contemporary and more recent film reviews, the film has a 100% "fresh" rating on film review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.[10]

In June 2008, the American Film Institute released its "Ten Top Ten" list—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. White Heat was acknowledged as the fourth best in the gangster film genre.[11] Also, the quote "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" was number 18 on the American Film Institute's list of the greatest movie quotes.

Awards and honors[edit]

American Film Institute Lists

Cultural references[edit]

Scenes with Cagney were used in the comedy film Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid putting Steve Martin to act with Cagney in scenes, as well as in the 1992 crime-drama film Juice. The "Made it ma, top of the world" scene also appears in the 1991 Ricochet starring Denzel Washington. Denzel recites the quote in the final scene a top a tower. A short clip was also played in a scene from Hart to Hart, Season 3, Episode 21, titled "Hart and Sole", airing 6 April 1982. Quotes from the film were also used in the album track "White Heat" by Madonna, on her third album True Blue; the song was also dedicated to Cagney.[13] Several quotes from the film were used in the hip-hop single "Back In Business" by E-40 and produced by his son Droop-E, on this 2010 album Revenue Retrievin': Day Shift. In 2013, Americana music artist Sam Baker included the song "White Heat" on his 2013 CD, "Say Grace;" the song's lyrics include many references to action in the Cagney film.[14] It is mentioned in season 2 episode 12 of Breaking Bad.

References [edit]

  1. ^ "The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time". Paste. August 9, 2015. Retrieved August 9, 2015. 
  2. ^ All about Francis Crowley, by Mark Gado
  3. ^ Woodiwiss, Michael, Organized Crime and American Power: A History, University of Toronto Press, 2001, p.238.
  4. ^ Hughes. Howard, Crime Wave: The Filmgoers' Guide to Great Crime Movies, IB Tauris, 2006. p.32.
  5. ^ TCM Overview
  6. ^ TCM Notes
  7. ^ IMDb Filming locations
  8. ^ Crowther, Bosley (September 3, 1949). "James Cagney Back as Gangster in 'White Heat,' Thriller Now at the Strand". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-01-11. 
  9. ^ "White Heat (1949)" at Filmsite.org
  10. ^ "White Heat (1949)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2007-09-05. 
  11. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10". American Film Institute. 2008-06-17. Retrieved 2015-01-14. 
  12. ^ "Librarian of Congress Adds 25 Films to National Film Registry" Library of Congress press release (December 16, 2003)
  13. ^ True Blue (Madonna album)#Background and development
  14. ^ http://sambakermusic.com/2013/06/01/white-heat/

External links[edit]