Hollywood Character Arcs ~ White Heat

White Heat
Released September 3, 1949
Warner Bros.
114 minutes

Screenplay: Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, based on a story by Virginia Kellogg
Director: Raoul Walsh
Stars: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien
Adding Character: Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran, John Archer, Wally Cassell, Fred Clark


As big-screen mama’s boys go—and real-life ones, for that matter—James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat has no rivals. He rocks the T-shirt and will punch you out if you, even silently to yourself, downgrade his devotion to his mother to something in the area of loves her to death, for he loves his mother even more than that. He loves her enough for it to lead to your death.

Usually, such a character would exist as a juxtaposition to the Strong Protagonist Hero (SPH), there to underscore what the SPH isn’t: weak. Such characters are so far from compelling, they’re almost criminal in the storytelling arena for committing vapidity. In the case of Cody Jarrett—an actual criminal—it’s his weakness for his mother that makes him strong. No spoilers, but he’s a heister with a powerful posse that stretches across various states. He does time on purpose for a pretty significant crime to throw the cops off the scent of his guilt in a very significant crime. The time is no sweat to him. He’s gaming the system and getting away with something, which is all he needs to feel—and in his world, be—successful.

And he has all the fixings and side dishes of a crime boss. He’s married to a fur-wearing Virginia Mayo, in her gorgeousness prime, young and trophy-esque, while being just a few months into “years of experience” to give her a cagey, sexy wisdom. They drive decent cars. Jarrett has access to a few safe houses and does business with a Big Deal Criminal who has the luxury of using a leisurely faux fishing trip as a cover for a meeting to plan the next big job.

This all sounds pretty formula, right? Crime boss. Gun moll. Shady deals. Hard time. What makes White Heat as different from those clichés as The Wizard of Oz is from Raging Bull is Cody Jarrett’s unusual devotion to his mother, played by Margaret Wycherly, who is Cody Jarrett’s heist muse and raison d’etre. She’s also proud to be the antithesis of Virginia Mayo. She’s elderly and plays it that way, but you get the sense that even when she was seventeen, she presented “old” (which is actually kind of true—photos of a young Wycherly reveal a haunting pair of eyes set in a pleasant but plain face, the result of which is an intriguing, older-than-her-years beauty). She’s bossy, controlling, and just plain mean. She can’t stand having Mayo as a daughter-in-law, not because she’s jealous, but because Mayo is largely useless and brings no crime skills to the game. She’s the last option off the bench, and Ma Jarrett treats her like the rookie that she is, showing her a modicum of a modicum of respect because Cody chose her to be on the team, and because she’s comfortable with the pecking order of the gang: Cody is first, Ma Jarrett is second. Nobody is third. And just in case we weren’t sure Cody thrives as his mother’s child and not just as her son, the script gives him horrible migraines that only his mother can massage away, as though she were patting a baby to get it to burp.

In Jarrett’s world, any man this reliant on his mommy would be a patsy who was dead by the second reel. But this is James Cagney we’re talking about, and he’s nobody’s patsy. He shoots a guy through the trunk of a car, orders another killed when his slow, painful, cold death takes too long, and grabs a hostage to…well, no spoilers. And while it’s taking everything this writer has not to spoil something else huge, suffice it to say that in all of James Cagney’s moments on the big screen—all of them—his most dramatic, over-the-top, raging bit of footage involves his devotion to his mother.

The result of this strange and surprising relationship is that we have no way of knowing what Cody Jarrett will do. He’s not driven by the standard motives of jealousy or trying to impress his woman or needing to prove himself with his men. He has every reason to “throw down” with Steve Cochran over Virginia Mayo but instead does so on behalf of his mother. That stretch in prison he volunteers for almost makes sense in light of how his mother factors in, which is to say that she remains outside and runs the gang in her son’s absence. And as Edmond O’Brien worms his way into the gang in a capacity not revealed here, he does so as a surrogate mother to Cody, looking out for him at every turn and even massaging away a migraine.

The possibilities for surprise are endless, and White Heat taps into as many of them as 114 minutes will allow. Although this post has been about James Cagney as Cody Jarrett, his unusual mother is an equally rare and compelling character, making them arguably the most enthralling mother-son combination ever portrayed on the big screen. The casting is key, to be sure. Who else in those days but Cagney could play a convincing crime boss who is driven by keeping his mother happy while remaining Top Alpha Dog? Maybe Humphrey Bogart. For sure Edward G. Robinson. Nobody else. But it’s also the fabulous writing that closes the deal. Cody’s devotion to his mother is obvious but still subtle. We’re exposed to just the right doses at the proper times. We’re treated to a fabulous cast of other lead and supporting characters who are also well-drawn and consistent. This isn’t a film about a man who is too attached to his mother. It’s about a criminal who does all kinds of interesting things motivated by his love for his mother. To steal an analogy from the publishing world, as movies go, it’s a page-turner. EL

White Heat / City for Conquest / Each Dawn I Die / G Men available here.

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