I notice that the classic movie White Heat is on the TCM schedule tomorrow morning at 10:15 AM. A search of my blog suggests that I've never done a full-length post on the movie, which isn't that surprising since I've always felt a bit uncomfortable blogging about movies that are so well-known that it's kind of pointless rehashing the plot. And I think the famous photo of James Cagney at the end of the movie, with the oil tank burning behind him while he says, "Made it, Ma, top of the world!"
So as I was thinking about the movie today, I found myself thinking whether one should try looking at it once as a character study. Oh, the plot is a pretty good one, but Cagney as Cody Jarrett so overrides all the proceedings that I don't think the nature of the heist at the end is that important. Anyhow, for a brief plot summary, Cody leads a gang that at the start of the movie holds up a mail train. Eventually he gets arrested and sent to prison for another crime; one of the prisoners Vic (Edmond O'Brien) is actually a plant by the cops to infiltrate Jarrett's gang, which happens when Vic helps Cody break out of jail. Jarrett then organizes that climactic payroll heist.
But along the way there are a couple of things that are much more important. One is that Jarrett is exceedingly brutal, and the other is that he is incredibly devoted to his mother (Margaret Wycherly). During the train hold-up, one of the underlings is burned by steam, and Jarrett doesn't seem to care. In fact, even though he's married to Verna (Virginia Mayo), he doesn't seem to care for anybody in a positive way except for his mother. Everybody else, he only cares that they don't get on his bad side. Watch, for example, what Jarrett does when a fewllow prison escapee complains about being stuck in the trunk of a car.
But it's that devotion to his mother that gives Cagney as Jarett the other defining moment of the movie. Jarrett is in the prison mess hall when he learns that his beloved mother has died, and he goes mental, climbing atop the table and more or less losing it emotionally. Trying to do away with her is just as bad as trying to do away with him.
In some ways, it's almost a shame that James Cagney so dominates White Heat. The reason I say this is because the other basic story is pretty good, and the other performances are even better. In terms of mothers dominating to a bad end, Margaret Wycherly is up there with Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate or Jackie Weaver in Animal Kingdom. Virginia Mayo, as the woman who comes second in Cody Jarrett's life to Jarrett's Ma, is coldly calculating when she needs to be, too. O'Brien does well, as does Steve Cochrane, playing the guy in Jarrett's gang who has too much of an eye on Verna for his own good.. Still, it's Cagney whom you'll remember long after the movie ends, for a host of good reasons.
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