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Film: White Heat

"Made it, Ma! Top of the world!"
Cody Jarrett

White Heat is a 1949 Warner Bros. Film Noir directed by Raoul Walsh and starring James Cagney. Cagney is Cody Jarrett, the violent and emotionally unstable gang leader who still has a soft spot for his Ma. After pulling off a train heist, he gets arrested and convicted for a robbery he didn't commit (as part of an alibi he'd previously arranged). Waiting in prison until the heat is off, he's worried about Big Ed, his second-in-command, taking control of his gang and his (unfaithful) wife. When he hears Ed has killed his mom, an enraged Cody busts out, determined to rub out Ed and regain control of the gang.

What he doesn't know, though, is that a trusted fellow con who escaped with him is really an undercover cop. It all comes to a spectacular finish during another heist, where Cody makes it to the top of the world...


This work features examples of:

  • Action Prologue: The film opens with the Jarrett Gang robbing a train.
  • Arc Words: "Top of the world."
  • Asshole Victim: Big Ed
  • Ax-Crazy: Cody. Cagney had played tough guys and bad guys throughout The Thirties, but the violently unhinged Cody Jarrett was a new wrinkle for him.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Cody develops one for "Vic", all the way to the point of being willing to share the loot fifty-fity with him. In fact, "Vic" seems to be taking the place of Cody's beloved mother in Cody's heart.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: This is how Cody and his gang tote around the money from the train robbery.
  • Chekhov's Boomerang: Before Fallon goes undercover in the prison as "Vic Pardo" it's established that another inmate, Bo Creel, knows him by sight. This proves significant later on...in two different scenes.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Verna.
  • Climbing Climax: Cody climbs up a gas storage tower to escape the police and make his last stand.
  • Confess to a Lesser Crime: Cody confesses to some penny-ante hotel robbery in order to avoid punishment for the train robbery, which would have gotten him the death penalty after four people were killed.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Cody is one at times.
    Verna: Cody, my radio ain't workin' again.
    Cody: Oh, no. What do you want for it, unemployment insurance?
  • Death Is Dramatic: Going up in a giant fireball when an enormous gas storage tank explodes? Not too shabby.
  • Diving Save: Fallon shoves Cody out of the way when another inmate tries to drop a heavy piece of machinery on him in the prison workshop.
  • Dramatic Irony: The prison has evaluated Cody as completely nuts. The van to take him to the insane asylum has arrived. The psychiatrist says "you wouldn't mind a little trip, would you?" to Cody—but the audience knows that Cody is going to break out of jail, which he promptly does.
  • Drive-In Theater: The Jarrett gang elude the police in one early in the film.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Ma Jarrett's a crook herself and not really a nice person to most people, but Cody still has a soft spot for her.
  • Evil Old Folks: Ma Jarrett, who is a crook just like Cody. Possibly inspired by Ma Barker of the Barker Gang.
  • Famous Last Words: See above.
  • Foreshadowing: The cops have a little talk about how to use triangulation to get a fix on a radio signal, and one of the cops says that you can build a radio beacon out of a regular old radio. Later in the film, Hank does just that, allowing the police to trace Cody and his gang to the gas works.
  • Get Into Jail Free: Hank Fallon does this regularly, and in the movie does it to gain the confidence of Cody Jarrett.
  • Giggling Villain: Cody graduates from Slasher Smile to this during the violent climax. It is unsettling.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Cody flips out at the mildest of provocations.
  • In the Back: Verna shoots Ma this way, then lies to Cody, saying Big Ed did it. As a way of poetic justice, he then deliberately does the same to Ed. Cody later does this to a bad guy who tries to surrender to the cops.
  • In the Blood: Cody's father died in an insane asylum.
  • Incredibly Obvious Tail: The cops following Ma Jarrett aren't that subtle.
  • The Infiltration: Hank Fallon, posing as inmate "Vic Pardo" and joining Cody's gang.
  • Karma Houdini: Verna, sort of. While she's in the custody of the police at the end of the film, she'll likely just get charged as an accessory and will almost certainly get off with a light sentence. Big Ed was the only one who knew she murdered Ma Jarrett, and he's dead.
  • Kill It with Fire: How Cody dies in the explosion at the end.
  • Living Emotional Crutch: Ma Jarrett is described as the "prop" that holds Cody up. Fallon sets himself up as her replacement to gain Cody's trust and keep him from going off the deep end.
  • Morality Pet: Ma Jarrett keeps Cody from going too sociopathic, and more importantly, keeps him sane. Once she dies, Vic deliberately gets close enough to Cody to fulfill the role, an idea that is lampshaded when he's discussing it with his superiors.
  • Munchausen Syndrome: As Fallon's superior explains to him, Cody's violent migraines originated when he was a kid and feigned them to get attention from Ma.
  • My Beloved Smother: Ma Jarrett is completely devoted to Cody.
  • No OSHA Compliance: The Final Battle takes place in a chemical plant in Long Beach, CA.
  • Police Procedural: The film shows in detail how police undercover operatives work, and how a vehicle tail is conducted.
  • Pretty in Mink: Verna dons a fur coat in one or two scenes.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Cody, again, who wants nothing more than to cuddle up with Ma when he has one of his migraine attacks.
  • Punk in the Trunk: When Cody busts out of prison, he takes Parker (the con who tried to kill him for Big Ed) and makes him get in the trunk of the escape car. Later, he asks Parker how he's feeling in there, and when the latter complains of stuffiness, gives him "a little air" by riddling the trunk with bullet holes.
  • Reading Lips: An older inmate who's gone partially deaf is used by Cody to spy on other prisoners' conversations.
  • Resignations Not Accepted: When Cody and his last Mook are surrounded by the cops, the Mook tries to come out and surrender. Cody shoots him.
  • Signature Line: The page quote.
  • Slasher Smile: Cody habitually flashes these. He seems to really enjoy killing people.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Gas refinery plant. Shootout. Boom.
  • Talking to the Dead: Cody to his mother late in the film.
  • Tech Marches On: Much attention is given to depictions of the cops' (now-dated) "modern" techniques, such as radio tracking.
  • Third-Person Person: Along with the aforementioned giggling, this is another manifestation of Cody's Sanity Slippage toward the end.
    "They think they've got Cody Jarrett. They haven't got Cody Jarrett, you hear? They haven't got him. And I wanna show you they haven't got him!"
  • Train Job: The film begins with Cody and his gang robbing a train.
  • Trojan Horse: The gas truck Cody's gang rides into the refinery plant. It's even lampshaded.
  • Undercover Cop Reveal: Hank is exposed during the payroll heist by Bo Creel, who recognizes him as a cop. Cody does not take it well.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Cody Jarrett wasn't really stable to begin with, but he really loses it when word comes that his Ma was killed.
  • Why Won't You Die?: After hitting Cody a couple of times with a scary-looking sniper rifle, an astonished Hank says "What's holding him up?" as Cody continues to stumble around the gas storage tank.

Vanishing PointDanny Peary Cult Movies ListThe Wicker Man
When Time Ran OutCreator/Warner Bros.Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Third ManFilm NoirThe Asphalt Jungle
National VelvetNational Film RegistryOne Froggy Evening
Under CapricornFilms of the 1940sCasper the Friendly Ghost
The Next Generation -Patlabor-Police ProceduralFire In The Sky

alternative title(s): White Heat
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