Before we even get to plot synopsis, here's a checklist of set-pieces: train robbery; attempted police sting, escape and pursuit; undercover cop infiltrating gang; mobster's henchman plotting a take-over with the help of his boss's turncoat moll; prison break; wages heist. There are any number of crime films that have built around just one of these big dramatic conceits. 'White Heat' gives you half a dozen in one movie.
With no preamble or exposition, director Raoul Walsh opens with a clinically professional train robbery. Clinically professional, that is, except for the novice hood who blurts out gang boss Cody Jarrett (James Cagney)'s name in front of the cowering-at-gunpoint engineer and fireman. "Why don't you give him my address?" Cody snarls. He swiftly executes engineer and fireman lest they identify him later. Things escalate: two mail guards are killed, and the engineer, lurching back from the gunshot, collapses onto a steam release valve that jets a scalding blast into the face of one of Jarrett's crew. Brutal stuff and an early indication as to why a 1949 film carries a contemporary '15' certificate for home viewing.
Cut to: the gang laying low in an out-of-the-way cabin. In one scene - one scene! - it's established that Cody, not unlike Vic Dakin in 'Villain', is overly fond of his mother (Margaret Wycherly), that his neglected wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) is finding solace with Cody's ambitious right-hand-man Big Ed (Steve Cochran), that Cody is hip to Big Ed's designs, and that Cody suffers from debilitating headaches. The gang use a violent storm to quit the hideout and head for safety, but leave behind the poor unfortunately severely burned by the jet of steam. A pack of cigarettes left with him as cold comfort bear fingerprints that point the cops towards Cody.
With a tail on Ma Jarrett (the wily old gal shakes them; they only locate her through a dumb-luck wrong turn), the heat comes down on Cody. He decides to jump before he's pushed and pleads guilty to a hotel robbery (smaller take; no casualties) that occurred at the same time as the train job. Result: minimum sentence (1 - 3 years); alibi for the train robbery. The authorities don't buy it and straight-arrow copper Philip Evans (John Archer), injured by Cody during a shoot-out, arranges a plant in his cell: undercover agent Vic Pardo (Edmond O'Brien).
Vic gets nothing out of Cody, who instantly distrusts him, but is there when fellow inmate Palmer (Paul Guilfoyle) - in the pay of Big Ed - stages an assassination attempt against Cody in the prison machine shop. Vic saves Cody, who repays the favour when he busts out of prison during a transfer to a psychiatric facility and takes Vic with him. He also takes Palmer - at gunpoint - and locks him in the trunk of a car. When Palmer complains its stuffy, Cody aereates the trunk - with four bullets.
So why's Cody so keen to blow the joint? Well, it starts with a visit from Ma: she tells him she's caught Verna and Big Ed in flagrante and announces that she's going to take care of things. Cody, impotent in his inability to stop her, is left clinging to the bars that separate them in the visiting room, wailing for her to desist. Later he hears from a newly admitted con that she's dead. To say he goes beserk is like saying Oliver Reed went down the pub now and then.
Settling the score with Big Ed, but unaware that he still has two traitors in his camp, Cody puts the gang back together and plans a wages heist at a chemical plant. This time, though, the cops have the location and the inside man is about to be outed ...
'White Heat' was made eleven years after 'Angels with Dirty Faces'. Some things had changed, some things stayed the same. Gangsters still talk in rat-tat-tat bursts of smart-alec dialogue. Cops still arrive at crime scenes fully equipped with searchlights, tear gas and tommy guns. What's changed is the moralising. Who gives a fuck that Vic gets the "he made it to the top of the world and then it blew up in his face" final line? - you've spent the last half of the movie despising him as a stool pigeon anyway. Nor is there any of the human element that suffuses 'Angels with Dirty Faces'. If Rocky Sullivan is basically a decent guy who was let down by the system whilst in reform school and set on an inexorable path to a life of crime yada yada yada blah de blah de blah, then 'White Heat' makes no bones that Cody Jarrett is basically one royally fucked up psychopath.
What makes the film really interesting is that it also engages with his psychopathology. Cody's father "died kicking and screaming in the nuthouse" (it's suggested the psychosis is hereditary); he feigned headaches at a young age to gain his mother's attention away from the rest of the family; he treats his mother better than his wife; he admits to carrying on conversations with his mother after her death. I can't think of another film from this period that delves so deeply into its anti-hero's psychological make-up. James Cagney's Cody Jarrett is a precursor to decades of cinematic miscreants, from Dirk Bogarde's Tom Riley in 'The Blue Lamp' to Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates in 'Psycho' to Tom Noonan's Francis Dollarhyde in 'Manhunter'.
Raoul Walsh, a stalwart of hard-hitting film noir and crime cinema with the likes of 'They Drive by Night' and 'High Sierra', made his masterpiece with 'White Heat'. Apart from the occasional flaw (the chemical plant shoot-out, although it seems to occur in real time, begins in broad daylight and concludes at dead of night), it's a film that puts to shame most contemporary blockbusters in terms of pacy narrative and well-handled set-pieces, and - in its iconic, amoral and plausibly empathetic depiction of villainy - echoes down the years in Scorsese's 'Goodfellas' and Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs'. A film that, in its apocalyptic ending, was relevatory for its time. The gangster movie, perhaps more than any other genre, has produced an astounding ratio of classics ... and 'White Heat' is one of the best.