Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 27, 2013)
Sad but true: I first heard of the 1949 gangster classic White Heat due to Madonna. She included a song of the same title on her 1986 True Blue album, and she also did a cartoonish production number for the tune during her 1987 tour. The tune even included some soundbites from the flick’s climax.
At the start of Heat, gangster Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) leads his group on a railroad heist. They steal $300,000 from a mail train and cause public apprehension. Not all goes well, though, as gang member Zuckie (Ford Rainey) gets scalded and badly disfigured by steam from the train.
In addition, other gang members chafe at Cody’s decision to hole up in the middle of nowhere while they wait for the pressure to dissipate. There they eke out a rough existence with Cody’s mother (Margaret Wycherly) and wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) until a massive storm allows them the distraction necessary to escape.
Cody promises to send a doctor back to help the ailing Zuckie, but he lies. He forces gang member Cotton (Wally Cassell) to shoot the maimed man, but Cotton deceives Cody and only pretends to shoot Zuckie. This doesn’t buy the burn victim much time, however, as Zuckie eventually freezes to death. Hunters find him, and Treasury Department Agent Phillip Evans (John Archer) comes onto the case since his disfigurement seems related to the train accident. This gives him a lead and points toward Cody’s gang as the culprits.
Evans and his cohorts track down Cody and the others but the gangster shoots the agent and escapes with his Ma and Verna. With the T-men closing in, Cody enacts a clever plan: he pretends he pulled off a job in Illinois that will only send him to state prison for two years and that also gives him an alibi for the train robbery. However, Evans remains convinced that Cody wounded him and was the leader of the railroad job, so he puts pressure on Ma and Verna.
Although it sounds like a bad deal for the feds, Evans helps smooth the way for Cody’s Illinois imprisonment. He sends cohort Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) to pose as a prisoner, get close to Cody, and find out what he can about the situation. Hank gets the alias “Vic Pardo” and winds up as Cody’s cellmate, though Evans warms him that the gangster is mentally unstable and could crack at any moment. The rest of the film follows the events in prison, subsequent issues, and a slew of betrayals.
Since I watched Heat immediately after I screened 1931’s The Public Enemy, it became virtually impossible for me to avoid comparisons. Both cast Cagney as psychopathic gangsters with abnormally strong maternal attachments.
However, that’s where most of the similarities end, as the two follow very different paths. Enemy served more of a biographical function as we watched the criminal life of Tom Powers. Heat sticks with one specific period in its main character’s existence.
It also provides a significantly stronger movie. I liked Enemy, but I thought it suffered from some problems that undercut the project as a whole. On the other hand, Heat boasts few concerns as it seems consistently engrossing and satisfying.
As with Enemy, much of the credit goes to Cagney. He almost single-handedly made Enemy fly, and while he has more help in Heat, he still turns on the juice with this excellent performance. Unlike the unrelentingly psychotic Tom, Heat’s Cody displays some range. Sure, he’s clearly a nutbag, and his attachment to his Ma is really pretty creepy, but he evokes more sympathy from the audience here.
That comes as something of a surprise since Heat does less to show us how Cody came to be a gangster than Enemy did for Tom. The latter gets into Tom’s slow rise through the ranks, while Heat features Cody as a fully formed killer. Yeah, it occasionally hints of problems in his past, but it doesn’t focus much on those issues.
This allows Cagney to give a richer performance in Heat. Tom was a fascinating and ferocious character, but he lacked Cody’s depth. In addition to his psychoses, Cody displays intelligence, humor and some insight, and he also occasionally comes across as a bit sympathetic. He’s not just the mindless psychopath of Enemy, as he shows real humanity. There’s no way Tom would have demonstrated the agonized rage Cody feels when one particular character dies, and Cagney evokes all these emotions splendidly. (I also found it clear that Jack Nicholson borrowed liberally from Cagney’s work here for his turn as the Joker in Batman.)
However, Cagney doesn’t give the movie’s best performance. That honor goes to Wycherly as his Ma. Flinty, tough and nobody’s fool, she’s totally acceptable as the hard-edged leader with Cody gone but also believable as his caring mother. Wycherly lights up every scene in which she appears and becomes the best part of the movie.
These performances become especially important since Heat doesn’t focus on much of a plot. Happily, it lacks the narrative jerkiness of Enemy, but that doesn’t mean it gives us a very concise story.
Not that I see that as a real problem. Yeah, the tale gets a bit muddled at times, but since the movie mostly concentrates on character studies, no true concerns emerge.
If I had to complain about something, it’d relate to the portrayal of the cops. I don’t mind that they’re fairly dull, as that’s inevitable; compared to Cody and his Ma, how could they hope to seem interesting?
No, the bigger problem comes from the fact that so many of their scenes act as little more than bland exposition. Heat loves to show the cops and their technological toys. We see endless shots of them as they use these gizmos to track the gangsters. These create some good moments such as the quirky bit in which Cody darts into a drive-in theater to hide, but usually they make the story drag.
Despite that problem as well as some inconsistencies of logic, White Heat offers a consistently satisfying character piece. Granted, I find it hard to accept a thug with such a cute ‘n’ cuddly name like “Cody”, but Cagney’s creative performance overcomes that obstacle, and the rest of the movie follows suit. Heat is a firecracker of a gangster flick.