Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) has arranged a meeting for the train that is about to travel through that tunnel. There are two of his gang already on board with instructions to stop it when it reaches this point and they have no qualms about using force - just like their boss. The train grinds to a halt and Jarrett's men set about liberating a large sum of money from one of the carriages while he stays up front with the drivers, but the henchman with him keeps giving the game away, calling Jarrett by his name in front of them. What's a psychopathic gangster to do but gun them down? And they won't be the only ones to die by his hand...
Considered a real shocker when it was initially released thanks to scenes of violence more explicit than much that had gone before in Hollywood, there was another reason White Heat was such a sensational property back in 1949. For this was the era when American films had discovered psychology and thanks to the teachings of Sigmund Freud the characters in thrillers might as well have been lying on the psychiatrist's couch. So it wasn't enough that Jarrett was a kill-crazy criminal, he had to have a fixation on his mother too and Cagney was the ideal choice to bring out the worst in his lead.
Of course, Cagney had made his name in the thirties playing gangsters, but Jarrett was more extreme than any of them. Behind every great man is a great woman, and Ma (Margaret Wycherly is almost as skin-crawling as her screen son) is the power behind a terrible man. And yet, with Cagney as the star he is the centre of attention at all times; even when he's not in the scene everyone is talking about him and such is his charisma that we want to spend the whole film with him, never mind how vile he is. Jarrett is seriously unbalanced: he suffers crippling headaches, he will murder anyone who doesn't fit his plan, his interest in Ma goes beyond simple affection and you certainly wouldn't want to meet him in real life, but damn if he isn't the hero.
The actual hero is supposed to be Edmond O'Brien's undercover cop calling himself Vic Pardo. When it looks as if Cody will get the electric chair for his crimes, he allows himself to be caught by the police and charged with a lesser robbery charge - he'll be out in two years, if that. White Heat then turns prison melodrama, with Pardo as Jarrett's cellmate persuading him to break out so the law can catch him in the act, so far so we've seen it all before, but Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts' script (from Virgina Kellogg's story) adds a wealth of eccentric touches, from the near-deaf jailbird who spies on conversations by lipreading to perhaps the most famous scene in Cagney's career.
This happens when he receives a bit of bad news about Ma, and duly freaks out in a scene which at once exposes Jarrett as pathetic and highly dangerous. There's also a sick sense of humour running through the film, whether it's Cody sitting on Ma's lap at one point (Cagney and director Raoul Walsh were surprised this got past the censors), or the manner in which he lets a doublecrosser have some air when shut in the trunk of a car. Mix all that with a snappy editing and you have a punchy and vivid gangster thriller that few have topped, even if it is an homage to all those Warner Bros' films in the same genre of the decade previous. Jarrett has a wife, incidentally, she's the scheming Verna (Virginia Mayo) who pouts and cowers like a little girl when he's around, but we're never in any doubt of who the woman in his heart really is. The film is twisted, exciting, features a fantastic Cagney performance fully deserving of its high reputation - and has that terrific ending. Music by Max Steiner.
American director with a talent for crime thrillers. Originally an actor (he played John Wilkes Booth in Birth of a Nation) his biggest silent movie successes were The Thief of Bagdad and What Price Glory? He lost an eye while directing In Old Arizona, but went on to steady work helming a variety of films throughout the thirties, including The Bowery and Artists and Models.
After directing The Roaring Twenties, Walsh really hit his stride in the forties: They Drive By Night, High Sierra, Gentleman Jim, The Strawberry Blonde, Desperate Journey, Objective Burma!, Colorado Territory and the gangster classic White Heat were all highlights. Come the fifties, films included A Lion is in the Streets and The Naked and the Dead, but the quality dipped, although he continued working into the sixties. He also directed the infamous Jack Benny film The Horn Blows at Midnight (which isn't that bad!).