A mentally disturbed gangster who's in love with his mother plans on pulling off the robbery to top all robberies, not realizing that his newest henchman is an undercover detective and his right hand man is trying to have him killed.
James Cagney ... Arthur 'Cody' Jarrett
Virginia Mayo ... Verna Jarrett
Edmond O'Brien ... Vic Pardo / Hank Fallon
Margaret Wycherly ... Ma Jarrett
Steve Cochran ... Big Ed Somers
John Archer ... Philip Evans
Wally Cassell ... Giovanni 'Cotton' Valletti (Jarrett gang)
Fred Clark ... Daniel Winston ('The Trader')
Alfred Hitchcock once said that you need three things in order to make a good movie : good script, good script and good script! This is a perfect example of that statement. It is as simple as that! This movie is made in 1949 and today,almost 55 years later, it still holds up and is up there with the best gangster dramas of all time. Many would disagree but frankly who cares? None of the modern gangster flicks would be the same without existence of this movie, thats for sure. The script is just great,the score is excellent and dialog is amazing!!! (try comparing it with the standards of today) Every third sentence coming out of Cody Jarretts mouth is endlessly quotable, this movie is Scarface of its time. Cagneys character in this movie is larger than life, one of the greatest gangster characters of all time... James Cagney - perhaps his greatest performance ever! I see that some fools criticize his performance,saying that it isn't great at all. My question to you is : How many movies from '40s have you seen? How wooden was the acting in those days? The answer - extremely. There were few great actors in those days, whose genius could hold up against the acting giants of today and one of them is surely James Cagney!
No one but James Cagney could play infamous gangsters like he could. Already famous for smashing a half-grapefruit on Mae Clarke's face in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, he had an appropriate bracket as another low-life in Raoul Walsh's ultra-gritty crime caper WHITE HEAT.
Breaking ground for even more creepy criminals, Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a man who wants to be on 'top of the world' and is dominated to incestuous excess by his she-wolf of a mother, Ma Jarrett (modeled on Ma Barker and played to excellence by Margaret Wycherly). These two are not people you would want to cross: Cody is capable of acts of extreme violence, and Ma Jarrett will go to great lengths to protect her son. She has even less fear then he. Both are the equivalent of Bonny and Clyde without the romantic liaison.
Such so that the Feds decide to keep an intense eye on them by sending one of theirs, Hank Fallon, disguised as a common crook Vic Pardo. Both land in jail and an uneasy but increasingly dependent friendship develops, one that gets closer when Ma Jarrett dies and Cody simply goes bonkers -- in losing her, he has lost himself and this now bumps Fallon a notch closer to Cody who turns the tables of trust on him. Both bust out of prison to perform another money-making heist that has quite a different outcome than originally planned.
The power of WHITE HEAT lies less on duplicities and double-crosses: other than the revelation that Cody's own wife Verna (Virginia Mayo, electrifying) was the person who offed his mother (off-screen), what matters if the relationship that the two men develop. Ed O'Brien as Fallon/Pardo seems slimier at times than James Cagney's Cody Jarrett -- his character is used to this sort of thing, living among criminals, playing the undercover cop -- and he knows all the stops to trump Cagney when the time comes. His role is actually more difficult than Cagney's because he has to underplay his part and walk on eggshells while around him, and we know that ultimately it will be revealed who he is and that Cagney will not be a happy camper at realizing this overwhelming betrayal. Featuring one of the best endings (and most quoted movie lines in film history), WHITE HEAT has gone to universal acclaim and has been referenced in its template when tackling crime dramas.
If you like James Cagney and you like the film noirs of the late 1940s, well, it doesn't get much better than this.
Cagney, who was always great at playing wild gangsters, makes this film interesting all the way through its two hours. Despite being a half-century old, he was still not far from being at the top of his game. His character, Cody Jarrett, is one of the most famous of the many he portrayed on film, which is saying a lot.
Who could sit on his mother's lap and still look like a tough guy? Not many, but Cagney pulled it off here with his tough mama, played really well by Margaret Wycherly. This was a new type of role for Wycherly, who was used to doing Shakespeare. You wouldn't know it from this "Ma Jarrett" role!
The "hoods" in here are all realistic tough guys and gals. Cagney's two-faced wife is played well by Virginia Mayo, who plays the typical (for this genre) floozy blonde whom you can trust about as far as you can throw.
The final scene - "Top Of World, Ma!" - is one of the most famous in all of film history.
# If the surprise expressed by James Cagney's fellow inmates during "the telephone game" scene in the prison dining room appears real, it's because it is. Director Raoul 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.
# In the prison eating hall scene when Cody Jarrett finds out his mother is dead, one of the cons who passes the word to him is sports legend Jim Thorpe.
# The unusually close relationship between Cody Jarrett and his domineering mother was inspired by real life bank robbers Kate Barker (aka "Ma Barker") and her sons.