During the 1930’s and 1940’s Warner Brothers took the industry by storm with their Gangster inspired films. Prohibition was tearing the country apart , and criminals were looked down upon, but yet these movies were very successful. For fans of this genre this provided a sense of escapism. The criminal life seemed fascinating to many. A few of the influential titles were The Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces, Little Caesar, and The Petrified Forrest. One of the enduring classics is White Heat (1949) starring the great James Cagney.
In White Heat, Cagney plays the psychopathic but charismatic Cody Jarrett. From the opening scene Cody not only embraces the criminal life, but is elated about it. There is no sense of desperation or need. Cody seems to enjoy robbery and murder. His gang tried to follow his lead but it is difficult. They realize that that Cody can and will murder anyone at any moment.
Cody does not trust anyone except his mother. His wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) is growing tired of his wreck less behavior, and Ed Somers (Steve Cochran) believes he should be ahead of the gang because of Cody’s psychopathic ways. Ed and Verna connect on this idea and began having an affair. Cody’s mother ( Margaret Wycherly) is Cody’s backbone. She gives Cody the confidence to have no fear, and encourages him through out the film.
The plot begins when Cody is on the run for a robbery and multiple murders he and his gang committed on a train. Cody decides to turn himself into the authorities, only admitting to a robbery that took place on the same night at a different location. With Cody admitting this he will only serve around 2 years in prison.
The authorities immediately place Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) in the prison to act as a friend to Cody and try to get him to confess. Hank going by the name Vic Pardo in prison keeps an eye on Cody, and begins to earn his trust. On the outside Ed and Verna are already plotting on Cody. Ed has a friend in prison with Cody that tries to kill him. Cody’s mother visits Cody in prison and makes Cody aware of their plans. She seeks revenge for Cody and is adamant about getting it no matter the danger.
A turn of events take place and in turn Cody’s mom is killed. After Cody’s nervous break down he is more passionate than ever to break out of prison. With his mother dead, he has nothing to lose but also questions his decisions for the first time. A man that isn’t afraid to die and has nothing to live for is a walking time bomb.
White Heat is a blueprint for the modern day thriller. From beginning to end excitement ensues. Cagney character jumps off the screen. A spell bounding performance. It seems to me that his character was the template for other criminal portrayals of this caliber, specifically Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Napier/The Joker in Batman (1989). Warner Brothers Gangster pictures were the first time in film history where individuals undoubtedly rooted for the villain.