Movie Review: White Heat (1949)

WhiteHeatThumbby Brad Nelson   12/27/13
Gangster movies are an old Hollywood standby. And when turning back the clock to watch some of these old black-and-white wonders, it is often the case that nostalgia makes up for what is sometimes a lack of cinematic expertise and artistry. But that is not true of White Heat with James Cagney which sizzles.

A more iconic Cagney performance cannot be found. Not all cliches are meaningless, for if you can see only one Cagney film, make it this one. And if you make it two, then go on to the comedy-drama, Mr. Roberts, with Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon, directed by the renowned John Ford.

In White Heat, Cody Jarrett (Cagney) leads a gang of outlaws on a crime rampage. The film begins at a breakneck pace with a train heist where it is made plain that this gang is violent and ruthless.

Cody’s closest confidante and partner-in-crime is Ma Jarrett (his mother), played cooly by Margaret Wycherly. She is no dull caricature. She plays it pretty straight as the subtly mean mother, still emoting a type of maternalism, but one that is certainly not nurturing her son’s better self. The dynamic between the two is believable and sometimes poignant.

Having robbed the train, the gang needs to hide out for a while and plan their next caper, which they do. Meanwhile, the coppers are hot on their heels, led by the solid character actor, Edmond O’Brien, who you could say is this movie’s star, or at least co-star. Both O’Brien and Cagney are thoroughly believable in their roles. O’Brien is calm, daring, and forthright — quite in contrast to Cagney’s manic and flamboyant criminality.

WhiteHeatFrameEventually O’Brien infiltrates the gang, which is another element done well. The dangers that O’Brien sometimes faces in trying to fit in with the gang and remain incognito are believable and not just a series of Hollywood cliches.

Virginia “hold the” Mayo is perfect as the “dumb blonde” who is Cody’s girlfriend and a bit of a femme fatale. She gets caught up in the power struggle between Cody and his top lieutenant, Big Ed Somers, played with  dastardly subtlety by Steve Cochran. And I think it is the skill of the supporting cast that makes this picture work. Cagney, of course, is larger than life. And if the rest of the cast had all been likewise, the movie would have been a caricature of a gangster film, and not the kind of dangerous, suspense-filled movie deserving of the name “White Heat.”

And there is a satisfying dramatic finish to the film, which you’ll just have to see for yourself. But if you can see only one old gangster movie, make it this one. This story is interesting from start to finish.


Cody Jarrett is the sadistic leader of a ruthless gang of thieves. Afflicted by terrible headaches and fiercely devoted to his ‘Ma,’ Cody is a volatile, violent, and eccentric leader. Cody’s top henchman wants to lead the gang and attempts to have an ‘accident’ happen to Cody, while he is running the gang from in jail. But Cody is saved by an undercover cop, who thereby befriends him and infiltrates the gang. Finally, the stage is set for Cody’s ultimate betrayal and downfall, during a big heist at a chemical plant. More »

Available on DVD ($8.82 new, $4.27 used) or Blu Ray ($13.76 new, $8.76 used). Not available for streaming on Netflix.


Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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3 Responses to Movie Review: White Heat (1949)

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I’m no judge of performances, but two other good movies starring Cagney are the musical Yankee Doodle Dandy (you can’t go wrong with all that George M. Cohan music) and the early 1960s comedy One, Two, Three.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Thanks for the recommendations, Timothy. I’m much more in tune with Cagney being the bad guy rather than him doing comedy. Next up will probably be “Angels with Dirty Faces.” And I hear that “The Public Enemy” is terrific as well.

      He’s not a bad guy, but Cagney is also interesting in “The Gallant Hours.” It’s a film too corny and pro-American for modern audiences because of the themes of honor, sacrifice, and courage. But every American owes far more to Bull Halsey than they probably know. This is his story. It’s similar to Churchill’s line about the RAF: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”

      • Timothy Lane says:

        A biopic about Halsey? Nice. I prefer Spruance to Halsey, but I have biographies of both. (I even cited the Halsey biography as a source when I did an article on Morison’s World War II naval history for Salem Press’s The 40s in America, since it discusses Halsey’s attack on Morison’s coverage of Leyte Gulf — especially Halsey’s failure to cover San Bernardino Strait — as “Monday-morning quarterbacking”.) I will also add that Hanson W. Baldwin, in his article on Leyte Gulf in Battles Lost and Won, includes comments by Halsey and Kinkaid. Delightful.

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