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 an Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts screenplay, it is based on a story by Virginia Kellogg. Considered one of the classic gangster films, this film 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 a member of Cody's gang, Zuckie (Ford Rainey). With the help of informants, the authorities close in on a motor court in Los Angeles where Cody, Verna and Ma are staying. Cody shoots and wounds US Treasury investigator Philip Evans (John Archer) and makes his escape. He then comes up with a scheme--to confess to a lesser crime committed in Springfield, Illinois, which an associate committed at the same time as the train robbery, thus providing him with a false alibi. He turns himself in and is sent back to Illinois, where he receives a one- to three-year sentence in state prison. This plan does not fool Evans, however, 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, takes over leadership of the gang and the treacherous Verna throws in with him, feeling assured that Cody will never make it out of prison because Big Ed has paid an associate of his serving time in the prison, 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 frantic 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, slugging guards before being overpowered and 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 is recommended for a transfer to an asylum.

Cody takes hostages and escapes, along with his cell mates, including Hank, and also takes Parker along with him, planning for a "payback" for Parker's attempt to kill him. Parker is locked in the trunk of the getaway car. Later, when he complains, "It's stuffy, I need some air," Cody--blithely snacking on a chicken leg--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 it turns out that she was actually the one who murdered Ma by shooting her in the back, she convinces Cody that Big Ed killed Ma, and he 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, and empty, tanker truck as a Trojan Horse. Hank manages to get a message to Evans and an ambush is laid. The gang gets into the plant and makes their way to the payroll office, but as they begin to cut through the safe, the tanker's driver, "Bo" Creel (Ian MacDonald), recognizes Fallon ("He pinched me four years ago").

The police surround the building and Evans calls on Cody to surrender, but he decides to fight it out. When the police fire tear gas into the office, Hank manages to escape. In the ensuing gun battles the police kill most of Cody's gang, and he shoots down one of his men who tries to surrender. The police arrest Verna, who was parked in a getaway car across from the plant, and she tries to barter with Evans for leniency, saying she can convince Cody to surrender and then "you can do what you want with him", but Evans turns down her offer and she is taken away, hurling insults. Cody then flees to the top of a gigantic, globe-shaped gas storage tank. When Hank, a marksman, 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 film was written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, based on a story by Virginia Kellogg. 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, notorious gangsters of the 1930s famously devoted to their domineering mother, Ma Barker.[3][4] The train robbery that opens the film appears to have been closely based on the robbery of Southern Pacific's "Gold Special" by the DeAutremont Brothers in 1923.


James Cagney, who had worked with director Raoul Walsh in The Roaring Twenties (which also starred Humphrey Bogart), played Cody. It had been nine years since Cagney hadn't played a gangster. Out of all gangsters that Cagney played in his career, Cody Jarrett can be considered his most psychotic. Virginia Mayo played his wife Verna Jarrett. Edmond O'Brien was cast as Hank Fallon, an undercover agent who is planted in the prison where Cody is held.

English character actress Margaret Wycherly played Cody's mother. US Treasury investigator Philip Evans was played by John Archer.

Steve Cochran was cast as "Big Ed" Somers, Cody's ambitious right-hand man who takes over the gang and pays Roy Parker, played by Paul Guilfoyle. Ford Rainey made his film debut as Zuckie Hommel, one of Cody's gang members. Wally Cassell, Fred Clark, Ian MacDonald, Robert Osterloh and G. Pat Collins were cast in supporting roles.


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 shootout was filmed.[6][7] The drive-in theater 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.

The scene where Cody sits on his mother's lap was Cagney's idea. He told Walsh: "Let's see if we can get away with this", to which Walsh agreed. However, in his 1974 autobiography "Each Man in His Time", Walsh took credit for the idea and said the scene worked because Cagney and Margaret Wycherly made it so convincing.

In a later interview, Mayo admitted she was frightened by Cagney because he was so realistic as Cody.

When Cody gets the news of his mother's death, Cagney plays his first reaction merely looking down, building into the emotional explosion. Years later he explained to Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin, "That first agony is private. If I'd looked up right away and started bellowing, it would have been stock company, 1912."

Executive producer Jack L. Warner believed that the scene in which Cody goes berserk in the mess hall after learning of the death of his mother would be too expensive to film and asked Walsh to film it in a chapel instead. Walsh, however, realized the dramatic potential of the scene and assuaged Warner's budgetary concerns by shooting it in three hours.

The telephone game scene in the prison dining room was also an idea by Cagney and wasn't in the script. Walsh didn't tell the rest of the cast what was about to happen, so Cagney's outburst caught them by surprise. In fact, Walsh himself didn't know what Cagney had planned; the scene as written wasn't working, and Cagney had an idea. He told Walsh to put the two biggest extras playing cons in the mess-hall next to him on the bench (he used their shoulders to boost himself onto the table) and to keep the cameras rolling no matter what.

O'Brien was in awe of Cagney, having found out how generous and gentle he could be. In a close-up the two were playing together, O'Brien felt Cagney standing with increasing pressure on the top of O'Brien's right foot, forcing the younger actor to move in that direction. O'Brien realized if he had not done so, he would have been out of frame and Cagney would have had the scene to himself. When the cameras were rolling, Cagney would look like "an angry tiger," but as soon as Raoul Walsh yelled cut, the star would quietly go up to O'Brien with a poem he had written and ask him in a whisper, "Would you mind telling me what you think of this?" When it came time to return to work, Cagney would plead, "Please, don't tell anyone about it."

Although Cagney found this to be a good picture on a number of levels, in his 1985 autobiography, Cagney called the film "another cheapjack job" because of its limited shooting schedule and the studio's decision to "put everybody in it they could get for six bits." Cagney was particularly irritated by the fact that he pressed them to cast his old friend Frank McHugh in the small role of Tommy in order to bring a touch of humour and lightness to the otherwise heavy piece. According to the star, Warners repeatedly agreed to do it, putting Cagney off until the first day of shooting when he was told McHugh wasn't available. Cagney found out later McHugh had never even been asked.

At the time of filming, special effects were not yet using squibs (tiny explosives that simulate the effects of bullets). The producers employed skilled marksmen who used low-velocity bullets to break windows or show bullets hitting near the characters. In the factory scene, Cagney was missed by mere inches.


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 #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]