The Ten Percent: White Heat (1949)

Promotional poster for White Heat (1949).
Promotional poster for White Heat (1949).

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law: the small portion of everything which is not crud. For each film, TV show, novel, comic book, painting, or sculpture that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the ground before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the horizon – well, those are the works that stand the test of time. The Ten Percent last for two reasons: (1) they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception and (2) they somehow manage to capture something fleeting and rare and preserve it for the lucky viewing public.

In these days of Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, and Dexter Morgan, the horrible-yet-sympathetic, at least slightly psychopathic, male anti-hero has become something of a standard trope in American popular culture, but while that level of psychological complexity has always fascinated in the news, it was generally not the stuff of the silver screen – until 1949. That year, the 50 year-old James Cagney returned to the gangster film genre for the first time in a decade as Cody Jarrett: the unstable, incredibly dangerous, career criminal protagonist of White Heat.

Cagney had played gangsters before, indeed he became a star thanks to his tough-guy roles, but spent much of the 1930s successfully fighting against being type cast into such roles, becoming almost equally famous for taking on the Hollywood system, joining the Screen Actors’ Guild at its founding in 1933, and staging a walkout and successful breach of contract suit against Warner Brothers – after which he returned to the studio as an even bigger star, with a much better contract. During the mid- and late 1930s, Cagney moved into more complex roles, establishing himself as a talented, multi-faceted actor.  This process continued during the war, and Cagney won the 1943 Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1943), while also dedicating his time to touring around the world with the USO and leading War Bond rallies.

Though Cagney had deliberately stayed away from gangster films since The Roaring Twenties (1939), he agreed to play the role of Jarret after reading the script for White Heat and talking with director Raoul Walsh, because the film promised to allow him to stretch his talents and to bring something new and very different to the screen. The movie opens with a train robbery, during which Jarret cold-bloodedly and somewhat joyously murders the engine crew after they have overheard his name. From the first few moments of the film, then, Jarret is established as the classic hard gangster, yet this typical framing begins to crack shortly thereafter as Jarret’s deep-seated sociopathy begins to emerge. There is really only one person in the entire world that Cody Jarrett cares deeply about: his mother, played by the wonderful Margaret Wycherly, whose character and relationship to Jarrett was based upon real-life gangster mom, Arizona Donnie “Ma” Barker. Ma Jarrett is confidant, advisor, co-conspirator, and the one person in the world – including his wife (Virgina Mayo) – that Cody can trust. Plagued by sudden, piercing migraines that only his mother’s touch seems to soothe, Cody always retreats to her arms in the face of scheming co-conspirators and flirtatious wife, to the point of sitting on her lap, a bit of business brought to the film by Cagney.

In fact it is Cagney’s raw emotional intensity and his ability to turn from murderous fury to naïve friendliness to heart-breaking grief, and/or to combine all three with a maniacal and joyous cruelty brought Cody Jarret surging out of the screen, and retains the ability to make the 21st century viewer uncomfortably tense as s/he waits and wonders exactly which Cody Jarrett will emerge next. Plagued by studio penny-pinching, White Heat is a legendary American film thanks to Cagney’s incredible performance, and Walsh’s ability to work around the studio, and his willingness to give Cagney the reins when it came to Jarrett.

Indeed, one of the most famous scenes from the film shows Cagney and Walsh’s teamwork at its finest. Shot in a huge, open space decorated as a prison cafeteria, Walsh had refused Warner Brother’s request to shoot it in a much smaller place by assuring the studio that he could film the scenes very quickly to save the money spent on the space, crew, and extras. As shooting began however, it quickly became apparent that the scene as written just wasn’t working. Cagney told Walsh that he had an idea about how to play the scene, and – without informing Walsh or any of the cast, crew, or extras what he planned to do – told Walsh to keep shooting no matter what. Thus the looks of surprise on the faces of the extras around Cagney in the following sequence are entirely genuine. (As a bonus, see if you can spot the cameo by football star Jim Thorpe among the prisoners):

The death of his mother leaves Cody confused and vulnerable, desperately seeking someone he can trust, a situation which allows an undercover cop (Edmond O’Brien) to befriend him and ultimately infiltrate Cody’s gang. Cagney brings Cody’s painful grief and deep longing for companionship to vibrant life, making the inevitable reveal and betrayal even more heart- (and perhaps mind-) breaking:

With everything worth having lost, betrayed by life itself and surrounded by “coppers,” Cody has only one way out: perhaps the most famous, utterly spectacular apotheosis in American film as he roars out defiance and madness to the very end.

Sixty-five years after its theatrical release, White Heat still enthralls, and Cagney’s performance remains so real that even the most hardened anti-hero fan will be on their edge of their seat. He is a raw nerve of passion and violence whose twinkling eyes and wide grin can indicate a party or a murder, and no one can know which until the deed is done. Cagney would never again reach such heights, though he enjoyed a long career until his death from cancer in 1986. In 2003 White Heat was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, and is listed in the American Film Institute’s top 100 lists for Heroes and Villians (#26 Cody Jarrett), Movie Quotes (#18 “Made it, Ma! Top of the World!”), and Gangster Films (#4 overall). The power of the film is undeniable, and Cagney’s performance is still a terrifying punch in the gut. If in the realm of popular culture the Ten Percent is the top of the world, then James Cagney’s White Heat has most definitely made it.

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017)You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.

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