James Cagney stars as Cody Jarrett, a mother obsessed psychopath who breaks out of jail to plan a raid on chemical refinery but unwittingly taking an undercover agent under his wing.
Probably Cagney’s most well known – and misquoted – character, Jarrett is one of the great gangsters from the old school. The addition of his Oedipus complex made him a completely different creature to his contemporaries, although I personally found his performance a little ripe in the earlier scenes of the film. Once they break out of jail the film and his performance settle down however and it becomes a masterful character study of a cold-blooded hoodlum whose flippant use of violence and contempt for the law has passed into legend. The incredibly influential formula has been copied relentlessly over the years, not least by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs and as such White Heat can be seen as a real watershed in the evolution of the crime drama. The cops are of course a little bland – especially in comparison to Cagney’s exuberant performance – but their use of oscillators and spectrographs must have made it the equivalent of CSI in its day. There is also some quality support from Virginia Mayo as the classic gangster’s moll, as ugly on the inside as she is beautiful on the outside as well as Margaret Wycherly as his hard-as-nails ma, and the spectacular finale in the refinery never fails to get the blood pumping.