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Film / White Heat

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

White Heat is a classic 1949 Warner Bros. Film Noir, directed by Raoul Walsh and starring James Cagney in one of his most acclaimed performances.

Cagney is Cody Jarrett, the violent and emotionally unstable gang leader who still has a soft spot for his Ma (Margaret Wycherly). 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 (Steve Cochran), his second-in-command, taking control of his gang and his unfaithful wife Verna (Virginia Mayo). 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 (Edmond O'Brien) 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.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: After Cody's Dying Moment of Awesome, Fallon closes the film with an ironic, yet somber, Bond One-Liner.
    Fallon: He finally got to the top of the world. And it blew right up in his face.
  • Arc Words: "Top of the world."
  • Asshole Victim: Big Ed.
  • Ax-Crazy: Cody. Cagney had played tough guys and bad guys throughout The '30s, but the violently unhinged Cody Jarrett was a new wrinkle for him.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Cody ultimately chooses to uncork the gas tanks at a chemical plant, shoot them, and go out in a (literal) blaze of glory rather than be taken down by the cops. It's particularly effective since he completes this plan after being shot already.
  • 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 two different scenes.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The radio tracking device, and the mention that with the knowhow you could build one out of a regular off-the-shelf radio. Joins with Chekhov's Skill when Fallon, posing as "Vic Pardo", is revealed to be handy with electronics when he is asked to fix the warden's radio.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Verna. When Cody is doing a stretch in the Illinois State Penitentiary, she latches onto Big Ed and shoots Ma Jarrett in the back. When Cody returns, she pins Ma's murder on Big Ed, and Cody shoots him in the back. And when she is arrested as a getaway driver during the chemical plant robbery, she tries to get her sentence reduced by offering to talk Cody down.
  • Climbing Climax: Cody climbs up a gas storage tower to escape the police and make his last stand.
  • Confess to a Lesser Crime: As part of a pre-arranged alibi, 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.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Reader Curtin's attorney comes across as one when he visits to discuss an appeal but this is downplayed, given that 1) His client is apparently guilty of the crime he was accused of and 2) He's apparently bad at his job, as Reader says he couldn't get him out of jail if he was pardoned.
  • 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.
  • Defiant to the End: Cody never considers surrendering, even after the cops start shooting at him with a sniper rifle, instead going out in a fiery explosion: "MADE IT, MA! TOP OF THE WORLD!"
  • Diving Save: Fallon shoves Cody out of the way when Parker 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: Rather than just bleeding out after been shot, Cody chooses to blow himself and the chemical plant up, triumphantly shouting "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" as he does so.
  • 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.
  • 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 (when we first meet him, he says he has done eight fake prison stints in five years), 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.
  • Incredibly Obvious Tail: The cops following Ma Jarrett aren't that subtle, but as they are co-ordinating their movements,note  she has a hard time shaking them.
  • The Infiltration: Hank Fallon, posing as inmate "Vic Pardo" and joining Cody's gang.
  • 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 Ryley when he tries to surrender to the cops.
  • Ironic Echo: In the prison yard, Cody sees Parker laughing and assumes he's made a crack about Verna now sleeping with Big Ed. He goes over to kick his skull in, but "Pardo" stops him, saying "They got rules in this chicken coop." Later, after "Pardo" returns from a month in solitary confinement after attacking Parker himself (to keep Bo Creel from recognising him as Hank Fallon), Cody asks him why he did it and snarks, "Don't you know they got rules in this joint?"
  • It Runs in the Family: Cody's father died in an insane asylum, and his brother also lost his grip on sanity at the end of his life. As the film opens, Cody's gang, especially Big Ed, already expect that Cody will follow in his father and brother's footsteps. The latter half of the film—starting with "Ma" Jarrett's death—proves that their fears are well-founded.
  • 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.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Ryley. Cody takes this badly and shoots him.
  • Laughing Mad: Cody is giggling uncontrollably in his last-stand shootout with the cops on the gas tower.
  • 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, at least until he can arrange the arrest of the stolen currency fence with whom the Jarrett gang have been working.
  • Mister Big: Besides being the boss, Cody also stands out as the shortest member of his gang.
  • Moral Guardians: The Hays Code prohibited crime to be depicted as glamorous and stipulated crime doesn't pay.
  • 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.
  • Münchausen 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 — and almost totally controls his life.
  • Never Going Back to Prison: Cody, to the extent that he eventually chooses Suicide by Cop instead.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Cotton, one of Jarret's men, gives a comrade being left for dead a pack of cigarettes, which are later used to help track down the gang.
  • No OSHA Compliance: The Final Battle takes place in a chemical plant in Long Beach, CA.
  • Outlaw Couple: Cody and Vera are a deconstruction, given their poor marriage. Tommy Ryley mentions having spent time on the run with his wife before being arrested, adding that she dyed her hair at the time.
  • 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. During his complete meltdown upon finding out she's dead, he genuinely looks and sounds like a bawling toddler.
  • 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.
  • Rasputinian Death: The climax has Cody shot three times by Hank with a sniper rifle, yet he continues to struggle, much to Hank's astonishment. Cody finally dies once he blows himself and the chemical plant up.
  • Reading Lips: Michael "Reader" Curtin, an older inmate who's gone partially deaf, is used by Cody to spy on other prisoners' conversations.
  • Replacement Goldfish: The police deliberately invoke this trope, telling the undercover cop posing as "Vic" to try and take the place of Cody's mother in his mind. It works. Cody comes to see him like a little brother, someone to protect and share the loot with.
  • Resignations Not Accepted: When Cody and his last Mook, Ryley, are surrounded by the cops, Ryley tries to come out and surrender. Cody shoots him.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Cody's death, and the famous "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" line, take place on top of a globe-shaped gas tank (a real-life structure called a Hortonsphere).
  • Sanity Slippage: Cody already has a screw loose, but when his mother dies, he really starts going downhill. He manages to remain crazy like a fox until he finds out the criminal he's come to see as a little brother is really an undercover cop. Then he completely loses it.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: When Ryley realises that Cody intends to shoot it out with the police in the refinery, he waits until Cody has moved on and then immediately announces to the police that he is coming out and attempts to surrender to them. This earns him a bullet In the Back from Cody.
  • Shown Their Work: All the locations and bearings radioed back and forth during the triangulation tracking of the gasoline truck, as it moves southwest across the Los Angeles basin, are accurate. They can all be found on a modern map of Los Angeles. Even the view of the Los Angeles City Hall shows up at the appropriate time.
  • Signature Line: "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!"
  • Slasher Smile: Cody habitually flashes these. He seems to really enjoy killing people.
  • The Smart Guy: Happy Taylor comes across as this to Jarret's gang in the final act (although it's fairly relative).
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Gas refinery plant. Shootout. Boom.
  • Talking to the Dead: Cody to his mother late in the film.
  • 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.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story:
    • The character of Cody Jarrett was based on New York murderer Francis Crowley, who engaged in a pitched battle with police in the spring of 1931 at the age of 18. Executed on January 21, 1932, his last words were: "Send my love to my mother." Another inspiration may have been Fred Barker and Arthur Barker, notorious gangsters of the 1930s famously devoted to their domineering mother, Ma Barker.
    • The train robbery that opens the film appears to have been closely based on the robbery of Southern Pacific's "Gold Special" by the De Autremont Brothers in 1923.
  • 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.


Video Example(s):


Cody's Mother is Dead

Cody Jarrett isn't the most stable person in the world, but he loves his Ma dearly, so when he learns that his Ma was killed, he snaps, spectacularly.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / VillainousBreakdown

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