White Heat is one of the best crime dramas you’ll ever see. James Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a sadistic, vicious thug who meets the textbook definition of the phrase “criminally insane.” Cagney gives a performance that no other actor could duplicate let alone exceed. If you are wondering why he didn’t get the Oscar for this film, I didn’t understand either but I believe it was because Hollywood didn’t nominate “gangster films” for Oscars until perhaps The Godfather.
Virginia Mayo gives a fine performance as Cody’s girl, as does Edmund O’Brien as an undercover federal policeman. But the other special performance in this film is given by Margaret Wycherly, who portrays Cody’s mother. You can see in her character one of the main reasons Cody grew up to become the monster he was. Her role is such a contrast to the warm and steadfast mother she played in Sergeant York. Wycherly deserved an Oscar nomination for her performance in White Heat in addition the one she received for Sergeant York.
White Heat was nominated for best writing; perhaps that was Hollywood’s discreet way of acknowledging Cagney and Wycherly’s performances and director Raoul Walsh.
I have seen this film many times and I am still amazed at how good it is.