Raoul Walsh has sorta been written out of the history of motion pictures, but he was one of the pivotal major names at the beginning of the medium. A P.A. for D.W. Griffith on "The Birth of a Nation", in fact, he even played John Wilkes Booth in the film. He was one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Pictures, and for years was one of the great go-to directors of Hollywood's Golden Age, a career he devoted himself to after his acting career ended because a jackrabbit took out his eye. Not kidding; he famously wore an eyepatch for the majority of his career. It forced him to leave the set of "In Old Arizona" and his replacement Warner Baxter won the Oscar for the character he was supposed to perform. That said, he had a career six decades of work and you can put him up there with Howard Hawks as among the most masculine of the Golden Age filmmakers. Unlike Hawks though, despite his career stretching from working with D.W. Griffith to directing Sidney Poitier, Walsh never really received much credit as an auteur, and frankly unlike some of his contemporaries who also seemed to do a little bit of everything, it's kinda difficult to narrow down truly undisputed great movies from his filmography, and to be blunt; it's not that his films were bad, most of them are pretty good, but there's a reason why nobody's really taken up Walsh's work and put it on that same pedestal that others have put, say Hawks or Samuel Fuller or William Wyler even.
Even this movie. In the era of the movie star being kings, "White Heat" is not a Raoul Walsh movie; it's a James Gagney film. It's one of the best of the old-time gangster films, and also one of the last great ones, “White Heat,” remains fulfilling entertainment and still mildly disturbing for some of the implications that the film may or may not seem to make. (You can never really tell a lot of things in the old time movies, whether or not a kiss is just a kiss or something like that.) Although James Cagney would win his only Oscar for playing song-and-dance man George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and deservedly so, he was most well known for playing in these gangster types, similar to Geroge Raft or Edward G. Robinson, and a few others, but Gangster films and James Cagney always go together. Notice how he commands attention and leadership, even though he isn’t exactly the tallest presence around. Granted in this film, he’s absolutely nuts.
Cody Jarrett is arguable his most memorable, menacing and sadistic character. His father died in a mental institution, and he isn’t lacking in the genetic department, and it doesn’t help that he has a mother complex. Ma Jarrett, (Margaret Wycherly) is always at his side, and vice-versa. Jarrett willingly admits to putting his mother’s need even above those of his own wife Verna (Virginia Mayo). He is a criminal mastermind who carefully and fully analyzes his crimes. He correctly figures that to leave the rendez-vous point after a successful train robbery, that he should wait a big through snowstorm before starting to getting a move-on, because the cops will be searching through the snow and start investigating elsewhere, assuming they've long escapes, and also, fewer people are going to be looking anyway. He even concocts a scheme where he manipulates the criminal system to get less time in jail by confessing to a different crime. To describe the rest of the goings on in the film would be to start telling Jarrett’s eulogy. I'm not giving away anything, the Hollywood Code at that time would have made it almost impossible for Jarrett to survive at the end, but that doesn't his death isn't amazing.
The ending sequence is one of the most famous in film history, as Jarrett tries to rob and hideout at a nuclear plant, which isn’t successful for reasons that would give away a major plot point, and eventually he ends up alone with the police surrounding him. This is after his mother had been killed and had to escape prison so the he could retake control of his gang of outlaws. (The criminal tendencies of this bunch more resemble a western gang like “Hole-in-the-Wall,” or the group from “Young Guns,” then they do what would be considered the typical gangster stereotypes today.)
What really makes this movie and this performance still stand out is the way we divulge into the psyche of the characters. This movie is about an insane man who just happens to be a criminal mastermind. This may be why this gangster film holds up more than most, it’s isn’t about a particular crime, it’s a character-analysis film. Even the movie's real protagonist, his cellmate Vic Pardo (Edmund O'Brien) who, unbeknownst to Cody is actually an undercover cop, whose job is to get closer to Cody and earn his trust as a person, is really just a way for us, the audience, to dive more deeply into this obsessive mind. I don't know how much we think of Cagney as one of the great actors, however much we do, it never seems like enough. There were dozens of great gangster and noir movies that Hollywood pushed out from the '30 to the '50s, the classic gangster movies, and there are a lot of great actors and stars associated with them. Paul Muni, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson to name a few, but I always associate this genre and era of Hollywood with James Cagney. Perhaps because he was the most talented of the bunch. Everyone knew he could've been Gene Kelly, or even Cary Grant in another time, but he put such emotion into these, pretty much, universally bad guy characters, that more of them feel three-dimensional upon second or third viewings than we may realize, or more than the movie needs them to be. If "Angels with Dirty Faces" is James Cagney as the empathetic gangster who we feel sorry for, then Cody Jarrett is the one who's most manical, sociopathic and sadistic; the one we want to see succeed, so that we may see him eventually get his comeuppance.
This all leads up to an ending that still feels amazing, but also feels like the correct one. In the end, Jarrett does achieve what his Ma always wanted him to, the top of the world.