A film noir with a slight twist, giving the brunt of its running time in consideration to the character of Cody Jarrett, a psychopathic gangster captain with mommy issues instead of the typical stoic P.I. White Heat is a classic gangster picture with film noir trappings. James Cagney is the Joe Pesci of yesteryear. He would have been right at home in Goodfellas.
Cody Jarrett is Tommy DeVito without the swear words. His psychopathy heightened by his attachment to his mother. Cagney absolutely simmers in the role, and every glance, word, and action cements his magnetic force. As Jarrett’s mental condition grows thinner and thinner the police send Hank Fallon to sneak in undercover into Jarrett’s inner circle. Hank utilizes his knowledge of Cody’s mother complex, filling familial shoes and simultaneously acting as the catalyst for much of the film’s suspense.
Virginia Mayo is along for the ride as femme fatale Verna, delivering a charismatic and sleazy performance that fits the film like a glove. The picture ultimately belongs to Raoul Walsh and Cagney, however, with Walsh directing objectively, weaving a tale of great tension and gravitas. His White Heat is surely one of the earliest films to humanize the gangster. For all of his insanity, villainy, and despicable acts Cody is a tragic character and White Heat is a tragic film. Behind Cagney’s bruising performance and machismo bravura (both of which he has in spades) lies a tragic brokenness, one that’s impossible to look away from.