The heyday of gangster movies in the 1930s brought the best out of all the studios big stars and the worst out of their characters. More than any other studio, Warner Bros dared to show the seedy American underbelly. They threw down the gauntlet to the other studios to try to match them for style and onscreen killing. Warner’s gangster films and the sentiment of the anti-hero found an immediate following amongst movie-goers. Amongst Warner’s stable of stars were Edward G. Robinson, George Raft, Humphrey Bogart and the energetic James Cagney. Cagney, especially made a meal out of playing a two-bit hood in 1930s. One of his earliest defining gangster roles was a film called The Public Enemy.
Cagney, like many of his actor peers, would be type cast and exploited by Warner Bros as a gangster actor for most of his career. The Roaring Twenties in 1939 would be Cagney’s last gangster movie for a period of ten years. James Cagney would enjoy a change of pace by starring in amongst other things comedies and musicals. His best performance came arguably not in a gangster movie but in Yankee Doodle Dandy, a musical biographical film about George M. Cohan. But as the years rolled on, Cagney got itchy feet again to play the archetype gangsters that made him famous.
White Heat was that vehicle that would reintroduce Cagney back to the underworld. Cagney’s magnificent return to the gangster genre, after ten long years was electric. But White Heat revealed something different about Cagney and the gangsters he once played in the 1930s. Our 30s gangster was no longer simply a killer whose violent behavior was easily explained by poor rearing or environment. The 1940s gangster had evolved to become a complex beast. In White Heat Cagney would play Cody Jarrett, a complete psychopath with ‘mommy’ issues. Interestingly, Jarrett’s psychopathic devotion to his mother seems to keep him sane, until she dies and he completely loses the plot. Watching Cagney play Jarrett and how he unravels at the news of his mum’s death in the prison mess hall is riveting stuff.
However, it is in the film’s famous ending on top of a gas tank with Jarrett shooting at the police down below that almost everyone remembers when White Heat is mention in conversation. As the scene plays out, Jarrett is eventually shot by the cops. Realising he is fatally wounded and cornered with nowhere to go, he fires two bullets in the tank near him which burst into flames. But before it blows up Jarrett, he utters this famous line, “Made it, Ma! Top of the World!” These last famous words are almost fitting for Cagney and the heights he scaled as an actor. For Warner Brothers though, White Heat wouldn’t be the end of Cagney nor the gangster. Cagney would live on and gangster movies would morph into a new sub-genre.
Photo credit: The header image is a scene from the film White Heat (1949) which is courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. I make use of the images under the rational of fair use. It enables me to makes an important contribution to the readers understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone by placing the key character of the film, played by James Cagney into the frame. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clip embedded here.
I originally wrote a different version of this article for Sean Munger’s website. You can view it here.