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Laramie Movie Scope:
White Heat

Cagney nails this crazy tough guy role

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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October 3, 2008 -- This 1949 film noir classic features one of Jimmy Cagney's most famous starring roles, that of the crazed murderous gangster Arthur 'Cody' Jarrett, and one of the most famous lines of dialogue ever spoken in the movies. This movie is gritty, pitiless and spare. It wallows in the lives of desperate criminals on the run and the equally tough cops determined to catch them. A forerunner of undercover cop movies like “Donnie Brasco” it features an undercover cop whose specialty is becoming a prisoner in order to learn the secrets of convicts. This movie isn't romantic at all. It doesn't romanticize the criminals or the cops. It shows both cops and criminals as tough, ruthless and smart, each trying to outwit the other. It is a forerunner of movies like “Heat.”

Cody Jarrett, whose father and brother were both institutionalized for mental illness, dotes on his mother (played by Margaret Wycherly of “Sgt. York”), who is also a member of his gang. She's as tough as any man, smart and, of course, loyal to her son. Cody and his mother are equal partners in the gang, getting equal shares of the jobs, mostly armed robberies. He is not close to anyone else, even his wife Verna (Virginia Mayo). The movie starts off with a daring train robbery. Cody kills the train engineer and fireman in cold blood. Later, he orders the execution of a gang member who is too badly injured to travel.

There is no honor among these crooks. Cody casually mentions that he expects another gang member, “Big Ed” (Steve Cochran) would shoot him in the back if he got the chance. He's not wrong. Even his wife isn't loyal to him. When he finds out she's been messing around with Big Ed, he's not even greatly upset or surprised. His mother is the only person he can depend on. Later, when his mother dies, he befriends a fellow prisoner who saves his life, Vic Pardo (Edmond O'Brien of “D.O.A.” Cody, Pardo, and several other prisoners break out of prison and plan another armed robbery, using an interesting Trojan Horse method to breach the security at a refinery, where they plan to rob the payroll.

Things aren't easy, though. There is bitter infighting among gang members, betrayals and back stabbing. Federal treasury agents “T-Men” are closing in on the gang, using an undercover agent and the latest radio tracking device. Cody plows ahead with his plan, regardless of the danger. He displays a reckless joy in his actions and a disregard for his own life. In the end, of course, he yells, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” even though he didn't make it and isn't on top of the world at all, but he does go out with quite a bang. Whatever else he might be, Cody is an unforgettable crazed character, a bit like The Joker in “The Dark Knight.” Cagney supercharges the entire film with frenetic energy. It rates a B+.

Somehow, I noticed a couple of faces in this movie from about 50 years ago. A prisoner, Russell Hughes is played by Sid Melton, who was a regular character, Ichabod 'Ikky' Mudd, on the old “Captain Midnight” TV show. A T-Man, operating a radio tracking device in “Car A” is played by Harry Lauter, who starred as Ranger Clay Morgan in the old “Tales of the Texas Rangers” TV show. That was the unusual show that alternated time lines between the Old West and modern day Texas. Both of those TV shows aired 50 years ago or more. Both men have distinctive faces, and somehow, I remembered them. A number of actors in this movie appeared on TV in the 1950s, 60s and beyond.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2008 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)