James Cagney was one of the biggest stars of the period that is called the golden era of Hollywood, and today he is mostly remembered for the roles of gangsters or similar dangerous types. It is interesting that in his first role, Cagney played a woman, and before he became a movie star, he was a dancer in vaudeville. He was a huge star in the 1930s, and after winning his only Oscar for his role in the musical “Yankee Doodle Dandee” in 1942, thanks in large part to his dancing and singing abilities, he decided to break his contract with Warner Bros. and found his own production company.
However, Cagney did not prove to be as successful a producer as he was an actor, so he returned to Warner Bros. at the end of the forties. He was on the brink of bankruptcy and was cast as a gangster in a rather unnatural relationship with Cody Jarrett’s mother for purely financial reasons. Warner hired the experienced Raoul Walsh, who had previously worked with Cagney, as director, and “White Heat” is a typical gangster film of the time. With the important difference that the main character is a weirdo, a guy in his late forties addicted to a mom who is part of his gang, a complete lunatic who suffers from migraines.
That Cody Jarrett is a ruthless, psychopathic criminal and cold-blooded killer, as well as the leader of a dangerous gang, is clear to us in the opening scenes. He and his crew rob the train and kill the conductor and other train staff without hesitation. How cold-blooded Cody is is also shown by the fact that he will leave a member of his own gang who was seriously injured by the steam from the locomotive without much thought. The only two people Cody cares about are his wife Verna (Virginia Mayo), who he treats like property, and his mom, who travels everywhere with the gang and takes care of her son when he gets migraines. But after the police finally catch him, Cody will end up in prison, and a detective will infiltrate there whose task is to gain his trust and find out where he hid the money from the train robbery.