White Heat (1949): Fission Noir

White Heat (1949)

Story of a psychotic hood with an Oedipus complex
(1949 Warner Bros. Directed by Raoul Walsh 114 mins)

Cinematography by Sid Hickox
Screenplay by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts from a story by Virginia Kellogg
Original Music by Max Steiner
Art Direction by Edward Carrere

James Cagney – Arthur ‘Cody’ Jarrett
Virginia Mayo – Verna Jarrett
Edmond O’Brien – Vic Pardo – alias for undecover cop Fallon
Margaret Wycherly – Ma Jarrett

Film Noir Filmographies:
Raoul Walsh: They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941)
Sid Hickox: To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Possessed (1947),
Dark Passage (1947)
Virginia Kellogg: T-Men (1947) (story), Caged (1950) (screenplay)
Edward Carrere: Dial M for Murder (1954), I Died a Thousand Times (1955),
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

White Heat (1949)

“White Heat = Scarface + Psycho” – Time Out

“The most gruesome aggregation of brutalities ever presented under the guise of entertainment” – Cue

“In the hurtling tabloid tradition of the gangster movies of the thirties, but its matter-of-fact violence is a new post-war style” – Time

“a wild and exciting picture of mayhem and madness” – Life

“an incendiary performance by James Cagney” – The Rough Guide to Film Noir

“Cagney is an epileptic and a borderline psychotic, and the cinema has rarely gone this for in a description of a true Oedipus” – A Panorama of American Film Noir (1955)

“Cagney… seems to incarnate the unstable explosive energies set loose by atomic fission” – Andrew Spicer in Film Noir

“A tragic grandeur… is achieved and culminates in Cody’s delirious and explosive self-immolation atop a metallic pyre” – Film Noir: An Encyclopaedic Reference

White Heat (1949)

From the daring and brutally violent train robbery that opens the film, this gangster flick has a relentless trajectory that ends only with the incendiary finale-de-resistance. Director, Raoul Walsh, and cinematographer, Sid Hickox, have produced one of the tautest and most electric thrillers ever to emanate from Hollywood, which together with the nuanced screenplay, has the spectator strapped into an emotional strait-jacket that is released only in the final explosive frames.

Jimmy Cagney as the criminal psychotic Cody Jarrett dominates the screen in a bravura performance that is as dynamic as it is intense. Edmond O’Brien as the undercover cop Fallon, is no match for Cagney, and appears flat and almost irrelevant. Cody’s razor-sharp intelligence, and unflinching decisiveness and brutality propel the action – Fallon and the other cops can only follow in his wake. Virginia Mayo is well-cast as Cody’s slatternly wife, and is as cheap and conniving as any gangster’s mole before or since. Only Ma Jarrett matches her in evil guile.

The film-making team conspires to hold you not only in awe of Cody but also to perversely empathize with him. Strange to say he is the only genuine character in the motley crew organised for the final disastrous heist. Even Fallon comes off looking lifeless and less than honorable. The mise-en-scene is calculated to subvert your moral compass. Cody is decisive and acts without hesitation or qualm, while Fallon’s actions are reactive and ponderous. When Fallon tries to sneak out of the gang’s hide-out on the eve of the heist to alert his superiors, he is way-laid and has to concoct a story about wanting to hook-up with his ‘wife’ for the night, as Cody talks intimately and almost poetically to him of his grief for his dead mother, and how he was just ‘talking’ to her when wandering in the brush outside.

In the final shoot-out Cody is pinned atop a gas storage silo at an LA refinery, while Fallon from a safe distance takes pot-shots at him with a sniper’s rifle. Cody won’t go down, and only when he wildly shoots his pistol into the silo is his fate finally sealed. Fallon looks far less heroic…

32 thoughts on “White Heat (1949): Fission Noir”

  1. Hi! Tony D’Ambra,

    (Author Andrew Spicer, also mentioned the word “fission” while discussing the film “White Heat” and actor James Cagney..hmm..)

    What a “coincidence” that I am reading author Andrew Spicer’s book Film Noir:Inside Film and you happen to mention a “quote” from his book about actor James Cagney and what category the character that he portrayed in the film White Heat (Cody Jarrett) fits into…and What category is that? “The Noir Criminal and Psychopath.”(Page 88, 89, 196)

    I must admit I skipped ahead to Chapter 5…in order to read his {Spicer} quote in it entirety.
    Because I am only on Chapter One (“The Background to Film Noir”…Which is very interesting too!

    Personally,I think this book is a “must have” for any film noir fan (and non~noir fan, alike) library.
    Btw, D’Ambra, remind me not to post again on your review entries over there on WitD….

    dcd 😉


  2. Great minds think alike 🙂

    Yes, Spicer’s book is very good reading, and he is one of the few writers that acknowledges the contribution of the Val Lewton productions.

    Check out Sam’s
    today at WitD to see why I won’t be reminding you…


  3. Tony D’Ambra said,”Great minds think alike”…Ok! I
    know your mind is “Great,” but who is the other person? …(Two drum beats)

    Btw, I plan to email you 2 articles pertaining to your and Alexander’s current “crush” Marie Windsor.(and what some people don’t know about her scene after her death in the 1952 film “The Narrow Margin.)
    ps I am unable to locate your previous article, where you discuss actress Marie Windsor, demise in the film
    The Narrow Margin. on your website

    dcd 😉


  4. Almost as good as this film is Steve Martin’s spoof of it in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, when he dresses up as Cody’s Ma and visits him in prison.


  5. One of my favorite films – Cagney is probably the most dynamic performer of his generation – even more so here where he’s pushing 50.

    By the way, I have responded to your insulting post on Fahrenheit 9/11. I appreciate your criticism, but the personal jabs were completely unwarranted and frankly, pissed me off. Nonetheless, I tried to respond to the points mixed in with your cheap shots.


  6. Alexander’s NARROW MARGIN review is indeed worth revisiting! It’s magisterial.

    And so is Tony’s WHITE HEAT presentation, which places this Oedipal character study is it’s right iconic framework. My favorite scenes are the ones mostly everyone acknowledges, like the ‘Top of the World’ ending, the prison scene where Cody loses it after he hears of mom’s killing, and the black humor in the scene where he shoots holes in the car’s trunk so the guy in it can “breathe.” This Freudian film boasts one of Cagney’s most flamboyant performances, and a superb one by his mom, Margaret Wycherly and the others. The great critic Pauline Kael says the film contains Cagney’s “most operatic acting” and that in it he has “his wildest death scene–he literally explodes.”
    Few people don’t love this film by Raoul Walsh as it’s sensationally entertaining.
    The centerpiece of Tony’s excellent treatment here is a fascinating consideration of Cody. Terrific.


  7. Hi MovieMan023. Great to have you visit. Yes, Cagney’s dynamism is even more evident when he plays against other ‘tough’ guys.

    Re Fahrenheit 9/11, while here is not really the place to raise my comment on your blog, I am truly sorry you felt insulted. I will deal with the specifics in the correct place, but I don’t apologise for my comments. For the record though, I feel it is grossly unfair to attack a person who publicly takes a controversial position, under the cloak of anonymity. Also your hackneyed view that anyone who is left of centre is immediately suspect and a demagogue, insults so many decent people who share Moore’s position. As for you being pissed-off, if it is any consolation so was I.

    Having said this, I do respect your obvious talent in film criticism and your erudition, which is why I have a link to Dancing Images on my Blogroll.


  8. Thanks Sam for your comment and kudos. The movie certainly is “sensationally entertaining”.

    Re the scene in the canteen where Cody reacts to hearing of his mother’s death. Apparently, and I can’t recall where I read it, the scene as written wasn’t working and Cagney suggested an alternative take known only to Director Walsh, so that as soon as Cagney raised himself on the table, the rest of the cast was truly surprised and didn’t know what to expect!


  9. Though you are correct that this is not the appropriate place to discuss the comments (and should you delete these I would not consider it unseemly) let me briefly respond to your post. I appreciate your (partial?) apology. You are absolutely entitled to your opinion of my opinions (including that they are “hackneyed”) but what annoyed me was basic assumptions and judgements you passed on me, particularly the last bit, as if I have no stake in what goes on in my country or what’s going on in Iraq; in other words, I took at offense at your opinion of me personally, not just my opinions. I tried to clear this up in my response.

    Further, I do not consider all those left-of-center to be “suspect” or “demagogic.” I do disagree with their ideology, as well as that of the right-of-center, but all strands are valuable parts of the public dialogue and it would be wrong to paint with too broad a brush. I modified a passage in my review to hopefully obviate a generalized impression of the “whole” Left, and no insult was intended to those (among whom, obviously, I count friends) who are dramatically left of center. What I hoped to criticize was what I saw as Moore’s dishonesty on two fronts: the elision of his left-of-center views to appeal to a wider audience, and also his technique which I found more manipulative and manipulated than he let on. I suppose this was not clear, which I regret. Nor did I intend to attack Moore as a person, in his private life (whether from anonymity or not), but rather to criticize him as a filmmaker and the public persona he presents in his columns and films (since he is front and center in his works, this included – which is his decision).

    I’m glad you appreciate my writing and I yours – and for what it’s worth, I rescind my stated heat-of-the-moment disrespect. Again, feel free to delete this and the previous comment after reading it, if you’d (understandably) rather have this thread focused on White Heat. Cheers.


  10. Sam, since we’re on the “Won’t Get Fooled” Again theme let me quote Pete Townshend again: You are forgiven! (Though I don’t think that was the escape you were looking for…)

    As a compromise I suggest we all shake hands and go vote for Obama. Enemy of my enemy, and all that. (I think Tony is Australian, but if the increasingly hysterical-about-voter-fraud Fox News is to be believed, that shouldn’t be a hindrance.)

    To change the subject back, one of the things I like about White Heat is the way it relocates the Cagney criminal from the urban jungle to the Western forests. Noir-in-the-woods, like Road House…can anyone think of other examples?


  11. Yes, definitely – and on the grounds, of nocturnal, natural noir beauty (I guess I’m in an alliterative mood) On Dangerous Ground might be my favorite (though White Heat is overall). That would be a great post – I look forward to it (though I think you were talking about an upcoming post on noir westerns, which would also be interesting).


  12. A terrific review, Tony. I’m spending just a little bit of time online today as I recuperate, and reading a review by you on White Heat was too tempting to resist. Raoul Walsh’s direction of the rightly celebrated volatile and tumid James Cagney here is awe-inspiring. The famed Oedipus complex of Cody’s, the scene in which he loses it after hearing about his mother’s demise… The final sequence. So many superb scenes and moments.

    Some have contested this as a noir, believing it to be more of a gangster picture. Evidently you disagree. Any thoughts on that? Whenever I summon the strength to return (probably a couple of days) I’d be interested in reading your take on that issue with this film.


  13. Thanks Alexander! Always great to have your comment. It must be hard to stay off-line… but do take it easy.

    Thanks also for raising the gangster picture vs. film noir issue. While I do describe White Heat as a gangster flick (it is perhaps for that genre what Touch of Evil was for film noir), and first thinking it wasn’t a noir, I came round to the view that it can be seen as a noir. This fuller quote from Borde and Chaumeton, influenced my change of mind:

    “While at least as tough as gangster films from before the war, White Heat is, however, much less summary. In it, one rediscovers the obvious influence of realism and of psychoanalysis. Cagney is an epileptic and borderline psychotic, and the cinema has rarely gone this far in the description of a true Oedipus. Madly attached to this mother, he will suffer, when he learns of her death, an attack of impulsive violence that give the episode the feel of a medical case history.”

    Basically, the portrayal of a criminal protagonist with neuroses that go beyond psychotic violence takes us into noir territory.


  14. Hi! Tony and Alexander,
    Alexander said, “Some have contested this as a noir, believing it to be more of a gangster picture. Evidently you disagree. Any thoughts on that?”

    I know that you are directing your question to Tony D’Ambra, Alexander, but here goes a couple of reasons that I think the 1949 “White Heat” should be placed in the category of “film noir.”

    First of all,
    #1. Check out! that Consensus list that I sent to both you…all 10 sources reached the conclusion that the film “White Heat” falls into the category of a film noir
    #2. An excerpt from Andrew Spicer’s book Film Noir:Inside Film
    [“The other quasi-heroic tough guy in film noir is the gangster. However, as many commentators have noticed, the noir gangster is no longer the dynamic, brash, confident entrepreneur of the prewar cycle,(Alexander, think of Cagney in the 1939 film “The Roaring 20s”) but riddled with existential neuroses…”]
    [actor James Cagney turned his explosive tough guy fron gangster film in the 30s into Cody Jarrett, racked by unbearable headaches coupled with convulsive seizures, and fixated with his mother…”
    he seems to incarnate the unstable, explosive energies set loose by “atomic fission” and, the famous final scene, he stands on top of a gas tank at a chemical plant-and states loudly-“Made it, Ma! Top ofthe world!- and blows himself up(Henriksen, 1997,pp.21-4).
    Lucy Fischer identifies Jarret as representative figure of “postwar” anxieties about masulinity, the violent, psychologically damaged veteran, hysterical “mummy” boy and the asocial psychotic (Fischer, 1993, PP.70-840)
    dcd 😉


  15. Alexander said, “Some have contested this as a noir, believing it to be more of a gangster picture. Evidently you disagree. Any thoughts on that?”

    Believe me A.C., I am not an “expert” (more like a “novice”…) when it comes to this thing called…“Film Noir,” but I think that Tony D’Ambra and Lucy Fischer comments sums
    up why the 1949 film “White Heat” “may fit” into the category of Film noir.

    Tony D’Ambra said, “Basically, the portrayal of a criminal protagonist with neuroses that go beyond psychotic violence takes us into noir territory.”

    Lucy Fischer, identifies Jarrett as representative figure of “postwar” anxieties about masulinity, the violent, psychologically damaged veteran, hysterical “mummy” boy and the asocial psychotic…
    (Fischer, 1993, PP.70-840)

    dcd 😉


  16. Thanks Allan for your colorful comment! Sorry for the delay in getting your comment up. First comments are moderated and I forgot to check the moderation queue for a couple of days…


  17. Tony and Dark City Dame, thank you for the highly insightful replies to my question. I myself believe it to be a noir, as well, but as always it’s a pleasure to receive greater intellctual barracking of all opinions. Thank you both again!


  18. Mind Blowing. Not for Wimps.

    “Man is doomed to prowl alone, a beast in the jungle.” John Howard Lawson (Dark City – The Lost World of Noir; Eddie Muller).

    And don’t get me wrong. I ain’t no back stabbing pinko.


  19. Just saw White Heat, it was awesome. Few if any films of any era can match its sheer ruthless kinetic energy, and that ending – “top of the world, ma” – gave me chills. Carney is unbelievably intense.


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