“You know why they call him Big Ed? ‘Cause he’s got big ideas.”

That was gang leader Cody Jarrett talking, but Big Ed and his ideas weren’t the only things he had to worry about. A double-crossing wife, T-Men hot on his trail, and blinding headaches were just a few of his other major problems.

He went on to become one of the most memorable gangsters in film history, and James Cagney’s hair-raising performance as Cody Jarrett singlehandedly made White Heat (1949) a classic American film. From the tense opening to the final explosive moments, the film never loses its hard edge, never asks sympathy for any of its characters.

Cagney and his gang rob a train and make a clean getaway, but not without killing a few people in the process. They head for a cabin high in the mountains, where they freeze day and night, planning their next move. The tension among the outlaws in the cabin reaches dizzying heights, as we learn that Cagney’s wife Verna, played perfectly by a sexy Virginia Mayo, is constantly at odds with his mother, played with thick realism by 68-year-old British actress Margaret Wycherly.

Wycherly’s turn as Ma Jarrett, deadly mère fatale, is one of the most chilling portrayals in film history. She comforts Cody through his bouts of headache seizures, and offers motherly advice on pulling jobs, getting fifty percent of the action for her trouble. Like any mother, she’s there for her son, no matter what, so when Cody goes to prison for a brief stint on a phony rap, like any mother, she takes over the gang. She despises Verna, and deeply distrusts Big Ed, played with great venality by Steve Cochran. Big Ed has long had plans to wrest both the gang and Verna from Cody’s grip. While Cody’s doing his time, Verna and Big Ed make their move and Ma gets it in the back. Cody learns of this one day in the prison dining hall and goes berserk in one of the most compelling onscreen moments of Cagney’s entire career.

White Heat represented Cagney’s return to tough-guy roles after nearly a decade away from them, and it turned out to be his tour de force. But it’s also a riveting look at a deranged psychopath with a mother obsession, something rarely seen before 1949 and not seen again until Alfred Hitchcock probed the subject in Psycho eleven years later. Veteran director Raoul Walsh, imaginative cinematographer Sidney Hickox, and the aggressive score of Max Steiner combine to make a violent film that grabs the viewer by the throat in the opening scene and never lets go.

Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

4 Responses to MADE IT, MA! TOP O’ THE WORLD!

  1. roy bonario

    Truly a masterpiece!! with much unforgettable dialogue: Besides the one Mike mentioned, my favorite line is Edmund O’ Brien’s “Bo Creel would know me in the dark,”

  2. This might be my favorite Cagney movie, and performance. Brilliant.

  3. Dana–My favorite, too.
    Roy–Another great line was, “How do you like that, boys? I was gonna split fifty-fifty…with a copper.”

  4. AJ Hayes

    So much hard-edged irony. Ma Jarrett gets it in the back. One of the first uses of what would become modern forensic techniques in a movie. The overlapping tail jobs — that Ma Jarrett’s instinct dectected. And her small grin when she ditches the coppers. A ground breaking film in many ways. Great review, Mike.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *