WHITE HEAT

USA

1949

Cody Jarrett: James Cagney
Verna Jarrett: Virginia Mayo
Hank Fallon, "Vic Pardo": Edmond O’Brien
Ma Jarrett: Margret Wycherly
Big Ed Somers: Steve Cochran
Philip Evans: John Archer
Cotton Valetti: Wally Cassell
The Trader: Fred Clark
Director: Raoul Walsh
Production co: Warner Bros.
Producer: Louis F. Edelman
Screenplay: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts. From a story by Virginia Kellogg
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Editor: Owen Marks
Music: Max Steiner
114 mins
16mm/Black & White/English

 

"James Cagney returned to Warner Brothers after a five-year absence in a burst of fiery glory as Cody Jarrett, a tough, cocky gangster, hell-bent on murder and mayhem. In his 1931 incarnation as ‘public enemy’ Tom Powers, the gangster's immoral life of crime was depicted as a product of the Depression era. In 1949, to an America becoming aware of Freud, the gangster was, in the studio’s words, ‘a homicidal paranoiac with a mother fixation.’ Society was no longer held responsible for the existence of crime; instead, in a switch from a social to a psychological explanation, a misguided, well-intentioned mom was saddled with the blame. When director Raoul Walsh – who had earlier chronicled the rise (The Roaring Twenties) and fall (High Sierra) of the gangster – moved inside his mind, he didn't abandon the world of physical action. A fast-paced, violent classic of the American gangster genre, ‘White Heat proved to be the apex of Walsh’s career at Warner Brothers' (Kingsley Canham, The Hollywood Professionals)." – Kathy Geritz, Pacific Film Archive, 1986
"White Heat = Scarface + Psycho. Cagney sits in his mother’s lap as they plan their heists together with plans provided by classical mythology. In the prison canteen, they tell him she’s dead, and he lurches, whimpers, and punches everybody in his way. Finally cornered by the cops on top of an oil refinery, he yells "Made it Ma, to the top of the world, Ma!" and empties his gun into the gas tank to join her in gangster heaven. Despite chronology (deranged by the censor’s influence on the studios), this is really the fitting climax of the ‘30s gangster movie." – Phil Hardy, Time Out
"The further presence of Edmond O'Brien indicates how many American films employ an investigative character around whom the story is organised. Raoul Walsh's White Heat does not simply accept this device. Instead it builds the 'plant' into a subtle study in betrayal. Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) is bad and dangerous, beyond question, but he has such drive, style and pathos in Cagney's performance, such dignity, that we cannot erase the feeling of distaste for the trick being played upon him. O'Brien was so resourceful an actor that he lets us see how far the weight of Cody's trust and affection has complicated his job.
"But that is a sidelight. White Heat looks increasingly like an exultant roar of self-explosion from the old Hollywood--an uninhibited return to gangsterism, an insistence that the bravura of stardom is all-important, and that pathological heroism has always best represented the crazy passion of movies. Margaret Wycherly is honoured here for one of three sombre movie mothers, the others coming in Sergeant York and Keeper of the Flame. Moreover, in her scenes with Cagney we feel a true, perverse love story in the meeting of two unique and outrageous actors. Without disturbing the framework of an action thriller, the Jarretts take us so deep into the psyche that Psycho was a little less of a shock." – David Thomson, Pacific Film Archive, 1983
"Cagney somehow invests a truly despicable character – someone prepared to shoot his partners in cold blood – with a tragic grandeur. Having blazed across the film, he gets the end he deserves." – Geoffrey Macnab, Sight and Sound
"Takes the successful cops and robbers formula of the 30s, adds psychopathic complexes and scientific sleuthing… brings back James Cagney as the tough guy… and proves again crime never, never pays, except at the box office." – Fortnight
"A return to the Cagney of old, Cagney at his best, cast as a ruthless, brutal gangster leader in a picture so dramatically-compelling that it will be one of Warners’ top grossers of the year." – Daily Variety
"Cagney – the most satisfying screen gangster who ever blasted his way to the electric chair." – Paul Dehn, Sunday Chronicle
"Look at Cagney – everything he does is big – and yet it’s never for a moment

Synopsis

When racketeer Johnny Vanning adds the Club Intime to his organisation, he calls its staff together to announce the new operating policy: everyone will be required to induce customers to drink, gamble and spend freely. One of the hostesses, Mary Dwight, clarifies the new setup, saying it will be a clip-joint. Vanning agrees and says that anyone dissatisfied with his new policy should resign.

A few nights later Mary brings a sucker, Ralph Krawford to the club. After Krawford loses a large amount of money gambling and then refuses to pay of the debt, Vanning orders his triggerman Charley Delaney to get rid of him.

David Graham, a special prosecutor, questions Mary in connection with Krawford’s killing but she proves to be uncooperative. He orders her held without bail as a material witness. When she tells Graham she is willing to testify, he proceeds to get an indictment against Vanning. On the witness stand, however, she changes her story and Vanning is acquitted.

Mary’s sister Betty induces Emmy Lou, one of Mary’s co-workers to take her along for a celebration party at Vanning’s penthouse. While resisting the advances of one of his stooges, Betty is killed. Emmy Lou, who witnesses the murder, is told to keep her mouth shut.

After hearing of Betty’s death, Mary threatens Vanning by saying she intends telling the police about his rackets. Two henchmen beat her unmercifully and disfigure her face. From her hospital bed, she pleads with the hostesses to join her and testify against Vanning. When they agree, Graham offers them police protection.

The girls’ testimony helps convict Vanning. Graham is acclaimed for getting Vanning convicted as Mary and the other hostesses leave the courtroom together, each uncertain of her eventual fate.
 
Press Materials
"A markedly different sort of gangster movie, this is a film à clef, ‘torn from the headlines’ in the best Warners tradition. In 1936, Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey put Lucky Luciano behind bars on prostitution charges. The case hinged on the testimony of three ‘working girls’ who tied the mob boss directly to the vice operation. The names have been changed, and the less salubrious details swept under the carpet, but to all intents and purposes Bogart plays Dewey (a rare appearance on the right side of the law), Ciannelli is Luciano, and Davis is the prostitute ‘Cokey Flo’ (here, nightclub hostess Mary Dwight). What really makes the film stand out is its focus on the women, identifying Davis and her girlfriends as the unsung heroines of a cruel economic and social trap; even at their moment of triumph, the girls’ future is defined by an uncertain and unsettling fog. Davis shows her mettle, smartly directed by Bacon, and there is strong support, right down to Bogie’s wife at the time, Mayo Methot. The hardboiled screenplay is by Robert Rossen and Abem Finkel, who couldn’t know that a year later Flo and the others would admit they had perjured themselves for money and legal protection." - Tom Charity, Time Out
"As the smart, lively young ‘clip-joint hostess’ who turns police informer, Bette Davis is the embodiment of the sensational side of 30s movies. The closest later equivalent was Jeanne Moreau in Bay of the Angels, but Moreau is different, more purely conceptual; she’s never as vibrantly, coarsely there as Davis, swinging her hips in her beaded-fringe dress. This racketeering melodrama is based on the career of Lucky Luciano, who lived high at the Waldorf-Astoria on the proceeds of a thousand prostitutes. In the film, Eduardo Ciannelli plays the role, with Humphrey Bogart (never at his best when cast on the side of officialdom – but then, who is?) taking over Thomas E. Dewey’s function as prosecutor. One of the prostitutes Dewey persuaded to testify was branded – ‘marked’ – as Davis is here. The film has the tawdry simplicities of many of the 30s movies that were built out of headline stories, but it also has more