I am placing White Heat in the Misquoted Movies category because it is one of Cagney’s best movies and I am using it to represent his career. Cagney never said “You dirty rat!” in any film he was ever in (see the parent post for this category for a video clip of Cagney joking about it). He did come close in 1932’s Taxi! where he said “Come out and take it you dirty yellow bellied rat or I’ll give it to you through the door” when pulling a gun on a man who is in hiding. There is a line from White Heat that is sometimes misquoted. Some people say “Top of the world, Ma” when the actual quote from this film is “Made it Ma! Top of the world!”
Cody Jarrett (Cagney) is the leader of a small gang of criminals who carry out heists. His mother (Margaret Wycherly) is very dominant in the gang and she is the only one Cody trusts, despite being married to Verna (Virginia Mayo). He’s wise not to trust his wife because she’s interested in Cody’s lieutenant Big Ed Somers (Steve Cochran). Cody’s father died in an insane asylum and Cody sometimes wonders if he will end up the same way. His mother often comforts him when he has bad headaches. No one is more important to him in the whole world than his mother.
The gang robs a train, but ends up killing some of the people on it. They hide out in the
mountains in a cabin until the heat dies down. The authorities find a clue that leads them to believe it is his gang who did it, and they manage to track them down to a motel. An agent is shot while the gang is making their escape. Cody already has a plan in place, though. He is going to go to California and confess to a crime committed there the exact same day he robbed the train. Since that crime is relatively minor he will get no more than a couple years in prison – much better than the death penalty for the men he killed in the Illinois train robbery. California
The agent, Philip Evans (John Archer), recovers and is not fooled by Cody’s confession. He is sure Cody did the train job. Instead of protesting Cody’s
conviction, though, he decides to plant a man inside the prison to gain Cody’s trust. Even as big a deal as Cody is, there are men of even more interest to the agents. One of those is the man who suggests jobs to Cody and that launders the stolen money outside the country. If this undercover guy, who is going by the name of Vic Pardo (Edmond O’Brien), can get the name of the fence then that will be huge. Illinois
While in prison Cody is not just a target for the authorities. Big Ed, with urging from Verna, decides that now is the perfect time to do away with Cody and take over control of the gang himself. His attempt to have Cody killed fails when Vic saves Cody. This both earns Cody’s trust and alerts Cody’s mother than someone is out to hurt her son, and she figures she knows who it is. Like a mother bear protecting her cub, she swears she will deal with Big Ed, even though Cody tries to convince her to wait and let him handle it when he gets out.
Cody soon gets some bad news and goes berserk in prison. He stages an escape, with Vic’s help. Vic believes that the other agents have rigged a getaway car so that it can be followed, but unbeknownst to him, they called that off when Cody had his meltdown and they figured an escape wouldn’t happen. Vic ends up in the position of being completely on his own, right in the middle of Cody’s gang, getting ready to carry out another job.
I won’t describe the various things that come up that keep Vic in near-constant danger of being found out because that would spoil things. I also won’t say what happens with Cody’s mother, Verna, or Big Ed, because those things should also be seen fresh. I will talk about being impressed by the technology use shown in the movie.
We like to think that cell phones and cops tracking radio signals are something relatively recent, but the truth is they have both been around for many decades. White Heat shows the authorities using car phones to communicate with each other while on the road, tailing Cody’s gang. This wasn’t science fiction at the time; car phones already existed in 1949. In addition, they use detectors in the various cars to pick up a radio signal coming from a device on a vehicle to keep triangulating its position as it moves. This is exactly how cops tracked the movement of people via their cell phones decades later (before GPS units became common on phones, which allowed cops an even easier way to track where a person goes.) The presentation of the tracking on screen is accurately represented, right down to the locations around
Los Angeles and showing up at the right times in the movie. Long Beach
White Heat is a very good crime drama with many thriller elements in it. It features both intelligent criminals and the agents out to get them. They are well-matched antagonists. It also has some great tension on whether the undercover agent will be exposed, as well as how far he is willing to go to maintain his cover. Finally, it features an iconic performance from James Cagney in the lead role. Unless you simply hate any movie about crime, I highly recommend this film.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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