White Heat is a 1949 film noir directed by Raoul Walsh and starring James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien, Margaret Wycherly and Steve Cochran. Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, White Heat is based on a story by Virginia Kellogg, and is considered to be one of the best gangster movies of all time. In 2003, it was added to the National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Raoul Walsh|
|Produced by||Louis F. Edelman|
|Screenplay by||Ivan Goff|
|Based on||White Heat by Virginia Kellogg|
|Music by||Max Steiner|
|Edited by||Owen Marks|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Budget||$1 million or $1,300,000|
|Box office||$1.9 million or $3,483,000|
Arthur "Cody" Jarrett is a ruthless, psychotic criminal and leader of the Jarrett gang. Although married to Verna, he is overly attached to his equally crooked and determined mother, "Ma" Jarrett, his only true confidant.
Cody and his gang rob a mail train in the Sierra Nevada mountains (referred to as "the tunnel job"), killing four members of the train's crew. While on the lam, Cody has a severe, instant migraine, which Ma nurses him through. Afterward, Ma and Cody have a quick drink and toast, "Top of the world!" before rejoining the others. The gang uses the cover of a storm to change hideouts and split up.
Informants enable the authorities close in on a motor court in Los Angeles where Cody, Verna, and Ma are holed up. Cody shoots and wounds US Treasury investigator Philip Evans and makes his escape. He then puts his emergency scheme in motion: confess to a lesser crime (the "hotel job") committed by an associate in Springfield, Illinois at the same time as the tunnel job - which was federal crime - thus providing him with a false alibi and assuring him a lesser sentence. He flies to Illinois and turns himself in, where he receives one- to three-years in state prison. This ruse does not fool Evans, however, who plants undercover agent Hank Fallon (aka prisoner Vic Pardo) in Cody's cell in the Illinois State Penitentiary. His task is to find the "Trader", a fence who launders stolen money for Cody. Hank's angle is to become a surrogate "ma" to Cody and get him to talk.
On the outside, "Big Ed" Somers, Cody's ambitious right-hand man, takes charge. Verna betrays Cody and joins Ed; because he has paid inmate Roy Parker to kill Cody, she feels assured her husband will not return. In the prison workshop, Parker attempts to drop a heavy piece of machinery on Cody, but Hank pushes him out of the way, saving his life. When Cody gets one of his hypochondriacal migraines, Hank nurses him through, like Ma always did, thus earning Cody's trust. Ma visits and vows to "take care of" Big Ed, despite Cody's frantic attempts to dissuade her. He starts worrying and decides to break out with Hank, but before he can, he learns of Ma's death and goes berserk in the mess hall, hitting a number of guards before being overpowered and dragged, screaming, to the infirmary. He concocts a plan to escape by feigning a psychosis. In the infirmary, he's diagnosed as having a "homicidal psychosis" and is recommended for transfer to an asylum.
Cody's buddy sneaks him a gun. Cody takes hostages and, along with Hank and their cellmates, escapes. They take with them a reluctant Parker, who knows he is doomed; Cody later shoots him in cold blood. He then heads for California with his men. On hearing of Cody's escape, Big Ed and Verna anxiously await his arrival and revenge. Verna tries slipping away, but Cody catches her. Although Verna murdered Ma, she convinces Cody that Big Ed did it, so Cody guns him down. The gang welcome the escapees, including Hank, whom Cody likes and trusts. They start planning their next job.
A stranger shows up at the gang's isolated hideout, asking to use the phone. To Hank's surprise, Cody introduces the stranger as "The Trader," Daniel Winston. Cody plans to steal a chemical plant's payroll by using as a Trojan horse the large, empty tanker truck purchased by his gang while he was inside. Hank says he will repair Verna's radio, then rigs a signal transmitter and attaches it to the Trojan tanker; subsequently, as they are heading to the job, he manages to get a message to Evans. The police track the tanker and prepare an ambush. The gang gets into both the plant and the payroll office, but as the men begin to cut through the safe, the tanker's driver, ex-con "Bo" Creel, recognizes Hank as the "copper" who arrested him four years prior.
Having tracked the truck to Long Beach, California using direction finders, the police surround the building and call on Cody to surrender; he decides to fight it out. When the police fire tear gas into the office, Hank narrowly escapes. In the ensuing gun battle, the police kill most of Cody's gang. Cody shoots one of his men for trying to surrender. Verna, in a getaway car across from the plant, is arrested and tries to barter with Evans for leniency, saying she can convince Cody to surrender; Evans turns her down. Cody flees to the top of a gigantic, globe-shaped gas storage tank. After Hank mortally shoots Cody with a rifle, Cody fires at the tank, which bursts into flames, and shouts "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" before the tank explodes.
- James Cagney as Arthur "Cody" Jarrett
- Virginia Mayo as Verna Jarrett
- Edmond O'Brien as Hank Fallon, alias "Vic Pardo"
- Margaret Wycherly as "Ma" Jarrett
- Steve Cochran as "Big Ed" Somers
- John Archer as Philip Evans
- Wally Cassell as "Cotton" Valletti
- Fred Clark as Daniel "The Trader" Winston
After winning an Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cagney left Warner Brothers in 1942 to form his own production company with his business manager and brother, William. After making four unsuccessful movies (including the well-regarded, but "financially disastrous" adaptation of William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life), Cagney returned to Warner in mid-1949. His decision to return was purely financial; Cagney admitted he "needed the money," and that he never forgot the "hell" Warner put him through in the 1930s when it came to renewing his contract. Likewise, the last thing Jack Warner wanted to see was Cagney back on his lot; referring to him as "that little bastard", he vowed to never take him back. Cagney's new contract with Warner enabled him to make $250,000 per film on a schedule of one film per year, plus script approval and the opportunity to develop projects for his own company.
To make good on his comeback, Cagney settled on the script for White Heat; on May 6, 1949, he signed on to portray Arthur "Cody" Jarrett. Much to Jack Warner's dismay, it was writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts who suggested him for the lead, claiming "there's only one man who can play [Jarrett] and make the rafters rock." For years, Cagney resisted gangster roles in an effort to avoid typecasting, but decided to return to the genre after feeling his box office power waning. Following Cagney's attachment, Warner increased the production budget to $1 million and hired Raoul Walsh to direct. Walsh had previously worked with Cagney on The Roaring Twenties (in 1939) and The Strawberry Blonde (in 1941). However, Cagney was unhappy with the studio's decision to hire Walsh; in part, because he requested Frank McHugh be in the film, but Warner turned his friend down in an attempt to cut costs.
Warner bought the rights to the story from Virginia Kellogg for $2,000. Being "methodical craftsmen", it took Goff and Roberts six months to complete the first draft. They "would plot in complete detail before even beginning to write, then write their dialogue together, line by line." When Walsh saw it, he pleaded with Cagney's brother, William, to talk Cagney out of doing the picture. According to him, the draft was "bad - a real potboiler," but William reassured Walsh that "Jimmy [would] rewrite it as much as possible."
White Heat was meant to be based on the true story of Ma Barker, a bank robber who raised her four sons as criminals. However, this was changed along with Cagney's involvement; Ma Barker became Ma Jarrett, and her four children were reduced to two. Arthur Barker became Arthur "Cody" Jarrett, a psychopath with a mother fixation. Cody's mental illness and the exact cause of his migraines remain a mystery throughout the film. This was done intentionally, enabling viewers to use their imaginations and draw their own conclusions. In total, the script received several rewrites, with input being given from some of Cagney's closest friends. Humphrey Bogart and Frank McHugh worked "after hours" on revisions; with McHugh writing the film's opening scene.
The script is notable for reworking many themes from Cagney's previous films with Warner. Most notably, in The Public Enemy, Cagney smashed a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face; in White Heat he kicks Virginia Mayo off a chair. In Each Dawn I Die, his character suffers the ill effects of prison; while here, his character has a breakdown in the prison mess hall. Furthermore, in The Roaring Twenties Cagney fought with rival gangsters in a similar fashion to how Cody Jarrett stalks the double-crossing "Big Ed" Somers (portrayed by Steve Cochran).
Filming began on May 6, 1949 and lasted six weeks; until completion on June 20. Walsh made use of a number of locations in southern California; first by going to the Santa Susana Mountains (near his home) to shoot "chase scenes". He then moved on to an old Southern Pacific tunnel near Chatsworth to stage the opening robbery scenes. Urban street scenes along with the "Milbank Hotel" were shot in and around Van Nuys. The "hideaway lodge sequences" were shot at the Warner ranch, the interior scenes in the studio itself, and the climax scene at an oil refinery near Torrance, south of Los Angeles on 198th Street and Figueroa. The drive-in theater scenes were shot at the now demolished San Val Drive-In in Burbank.
Jack Warner wanted the prison mess hall scene replaced for budgetary reasons, stating the "cost of a single scene with 600 extras and only one line of dialogue would be exorbitant." For this reason, Warner wanted the scene shot in a chapel, but relented when "the writers pointed out that, apart from the fact that Jarrett would [never be willingly caught in a] chapel", the whole point of the scene was to "have a lot of noise, with rattling knives and forks and chatter, that suddenly goes completely silent when Jarrett first screams." The scream was improvised by Cagney, and the shock on everyone's face was real, for neither Cagney nor Walsh informed any of the extras of what was going to happen. Warner agreed to the scene on the condition that it be shot in three hours, so "that the extras were through by lunchtime."
A number of scenes were improvised; Walsh's "personal touches go beyond the script." When Cody and his gang hide out in their cabin just after the train heist, Cody has one of his "debilitating headaches", causing him to fall from his chair and fire off a round from his .45. This was Walsh's idea, as was the showing of Virginia Mayo's upper thigh on screen. Another scene involved Cody giving his wife, Verna, a "seething look", but Walsh improvised and had Cagney knock her off of her chair. Cagney claimed it was his idea "to have Cody climb onto Ma Jarrett's lap and sit there; being soothed during one of his psychotic [episodes]", but Walsh has always denied this; claiming many years later that it was his idea.
According to Warner Bros records the film earned $2,189,000 domestically and $1,294,000 foreign.
Critical reaction to the film was positive, and today it is considered a classic. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "the acme of the gangster-prison film" and praised its "thermal intensity".
This classic film anticipated the heist films of the early '50s (for example John Huston's 1950 The Asphalt Jungle and Stanley Kubrick's 1956 The Killing), accentuated the semi-documentary style of films of the period (the 1948 The Naked City), and contained film-noirish elements, including the shady black-and-white cinematography, the femme fatale character, and the twisted psyche of the criminal gangster.— Tim Dirks
White Heat was listed in Time magazine's top 100 films of all time. On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 100% based on 30 reviews collected retrospectively.
Awards and honorsEdit
In 1950, Virginia Kellogg was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Story. Also that year writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts were nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture, by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2003, the United States Library of Congress selected White Heat for preservation in the National Film Registry.
On June 4, 2003, the American Film Institute named Cody Jarrett in its list of the best heroes and villains of the past 100 years.[N 1] Furthermore, in June 2005, "Made it, Ma! Top of the World!" was voted 18th in AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes; while, in June 2008, White Heat was voted 4th in AFI's 10 Top 10 list of gangster movies.
Scenes of the film are featured in the 1992 crime-drama film Juice as well as the 1982 Hart to Hart episode "Hart and Sole." In the noir parody Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid Steve Martin acts in scenes with Cagney's character through special effects and cross-cutting.
The "Made it ma, top of the world" line is used in the 1991 film Ricochet, in which Denzel Washington recites the quote in the final scene atop a tower. A variation of the quote appears in the 1986 movie Tough Guys during a scene in which Eli Wallach shoots at cops from a train. It has also been quoted in a fifth season episode of Cheers, a second season episode of Breaking Bad and the series finale of Mixels. The line is also quoted in the Kings of the Sun song "Drop The Gun".
The film has inspired songs such as Madonna's "White Heat" on True Blue; the song was also dedicated to Cagney. Sam Baker's "White Heat" references the plot and dialogue on his 2013 album Say Grace. The film is also alluded to in E-40's "Back In Business" on his 2010 album Revenue Retrievin': Day Shift.
- Nollen, chapter 15, page 1.
- Warner Bros financial information in The William Shaefer Ledger. See Appendix 1, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, (1995) 15:sup1, 1-31 p 30 DOI: 10.1080/01439689508604551
- "Top-Grossers of 1949", Variety, published January 4, 1950. Retrieved July 31, 2017.
- Crowther, Bosley. "James Cagney Back as Gangster in 'White Heat,' Thriller Now at the Strand", The New York Times, published September 3, 1949. Retrieved July 31, 2017.
- Moss, Ann Marilyn. Film Essay for White Heat, National Film Preservation Board, publishing date unknown. Retrieved July 29, 2017.
- Eagan, pages 424-425.
- White, Timothy. "James Cagney: Looking Backward", Rolling Stone Magazine, published February 18, 1982. Retrieved July 29, 2017.
- Vallance, Tom. "Obituary: Ivan Goff", The Independent, published September 27, 1999. Retrieved July 31, 2017.
- Moss, page 169.
- Hughes, chapter 4, page 4.
- Hughes, chapter 4, pages 5-6.
- Gabel, William. San Val Drive-In, Cinema Treasures, publishing date unknown. Retrieved July 31, 2017.
- Moss, pages 192-195.
- "White Heat (1949)", Rotten Tomatoes, established August 12, 1998. Date of publication unknown. Retrieved December 17, 2018.
- 22nd Academy Award Winners and Nominees, Academy Awards, first published March 23, 1950. Retrieved July 31, 2017.
- 1950 Edgar Award Winners and Nominees for Best Motion Picture, Edgar Awards, published 1950. Retrieved July 31, 2017.
- Cannady, Sheryl. "Librarian of Congress Adds 25 Films to National Film Registry", Library of Congress, published December 16, 2003. Retrieved August 1, 2017.
- "AFI's 100 YEARS...100 HEROES & VILLAINS", American Film Institute, published June 4, 2003. Retrieved August 2, 2017.
- "AFI'S 100 YEARS...100 MOVIE QUOTES", American Film Institute, published June 21, 2005. Retrieved August 2, 2017.
- "TOP 10 GANGSTER", American Film Institute, published June 17, 2008. Retrieved August 2, 2017.
- True Blue (Madonna album)#Background and development
- "white heat lyrics". Sam Baker. Retrieved 20 April 2016.
- Eagan, Daniel (2009). America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry. United States: Bloomsbury. ISBN 1441116478.
- Hughes, Howard (2015). Crime Wave: The Filmgoers' Guide to Great Crime Movies. United States: I.B. Tauris. ISBN 0857730487.
- Moss, Ann Marilyn (2011). Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood's Legendary Director. United States: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813133947.
- Nollen, Scott Allen (2007). Warners Wiseguys : All 112 Films That Robinson, Cagney and Bogart Made for the Studio. United States: McFarland & Co. ISBN 0786432624.