So I had never seen a James Cagney film, and decided this would be the first one. I state with a little bit of shame that I know full well the reason I started with this one is that on Madonna’s True Blue album, there is a song called “White Heat” that begins with a sample from this film. Not that I’m such a Madonna fan, but I just had that little bit in my head and that’s what tipped me toward this one first. The lyrics to that song, by the way, are classic nonsensical early Madonna, and have nothing to do with the film: “Get up! Stand tall! Put your back against the wall! Because my love is dangerous… This is a bust!”
Okay, so we open with a train coming out of a tunnel, which I just mention for you Freudians out there. Then Cagney as Cody Jarrett jumps on and forces the train to stop, and his men get on and loot it. One of the gangsters lets slip Cody’s name, requiring him to kill both the trainmen that hear it. The dumb gangster is soon scalded by a sudden release of steam. The whole heist has an excellent, tense and exciting rhythm, and afterwards they all repair to a cabin to hide out [this is by Tahoe], the dumb gangster bandaged all over his upper body, but not allowed to go to the doctor.
In here we meet Cody’s Mom, who is quite close and protective of him, and his wife, Verna, played by Virginia Mayo. We learn that Cody is sometimes prone to sudden, crippling headaches, after which he has to recover his authority over his men. He has a second-in-command in Big Ed, of which he says “If I turned my head long enough for him to put a hole in it, there’d be a hole in it.” Turns out there’s a big storm coming, and they decide that would be a great time to leave, as the authorities won’t be able to pursue them in the storm. They tell the bandaged guy they’ll send help for him, which he knows is a lie, and it is—Cody instructs one of them to back in and execute him. The guy fires into the air, but let’s the injured guy live.
We now introduce John Archer as lead investigator Philip Evans, on the case of Cody as they stay at a motel in Southern California. Mom and Verna are having trouble living together, and it’s becoming more and more clear that Cody wants Verna around for her beauty and to say he has a wife, but his real heart belongs to Mama. She has gone to the market to get her precious boy some strawberries, which Verna mocks, causing Cody to bash her one. Meanwhile, Mom gets ID’ed at the store and followed back to the motel, leading to a shootout and Cody and company’s escape. In here we get a lot of coverage of the cops’ then super-cutting-edge car phones, and the detective in charge take a bullet to the shoulder.
So Cody sees that he’s hot, and decides to go to Illinois and turn himself in a crime he did there, which will get him two years in the pen, as opposed to the electric chair, which he’d get for the train robbery. So prison is the better choice. The detectives send in this fellow Hank, played by Edmond O’Brien, who will go undercover as Vic Pardo and become Cody’s cellmate, earn his trust and get information, then bust his ass. There is one fellow at the prison who would recognize Hank for who he is, but that guy is supposed to have been released by now.
We’re going into the spoilers now, but if you’re leaving us here, I just wanted to mention that this is the rare movie in which the first hour is good, then, suddenly, the second hour is GREAT. Yep, things just start really popping form here…
SPOILERS > > >
So Pardo tries to befriend Cody, but he’s suspicious… even after he saves Cody from an assassination attempt. Cody learns that Verna has left him and is shacking up with Big Ed. After a while, Pardo helps Cody through one of his mega-headaches, and this earns Cody’s trust. Now, here’s where things start to get AMAZING: Mom visits, and indicates that she’s going after Ed herself, against Cody’s wishes. Cody decides that he has to break out of prison to stop her. Soon after, in the middle of the mess hall, Cody is told that his mother is dead. Cody starts weeping, starts screaming, gets up on the table and freaks, is subdued by guards, then takes out guard after guard on his way out, before finally grabbed by five men and led out. It’s an amazing performance, really builds over its course, and is all the more powerful for seeing tough guy Cody breaking down. Then follows a jailbreak that is pretty breathtakingly efficient, but I’ll leave that for you to discover. Pardo “escapes” with Cody.
We now shift to Verna and Ed, with Verna realizing that she made the wroooooooong choice. She knows that Cody is coming after them both, that Ed is no match for him, and this Ed fellow just isn’t all that much, anyway. She tells Ed she’s taking off. Steve Cochran as Big Ed goes from background nondescript bad guy to CENTER-STAGE SEX MACHINE [in my book at least] when he coolly tells Verna that if she leaves, he’ll tell Cody that she shot his mother—in the back. Cochran is so smooth, cold and downright evil here that, readers, I fell in love. I just love me some low-down, dirty villains. Plus he has outstanding Mustache Potential [MP]. In this boring, clean-shaven, hairless world in which men are becoming slightly less masculine than Vanessa Hudgens, you can no longer ask for a mustache—you must simply look for MUSTACHE POTENTIAL. Anyway, Verna realizes that Ed is a cold-blooded killer who would as soon kill her as pick his nose, but she’s trapped in this marriage, because he will sic Cody on her if she doesn’t. I don’t think they have based their relationship on a solid foundation of mutual respect, trust and understanding, frankly. But it turns out they’re not quite alone, someone else is there, and—I’m not going to tell you what happens! In fact, I'm not going to tell you about the rest of the movie, because there are such good little twists and narrow escapes [some of which are familiar from later movies that have copied this one], and ends with a grand-scale, explosive finale. Oh, and by the way, in here Cody pretty much comes out and says he never has sex with Verna. Innnnnnteresting.
< < < SPOILERS END
It was great! As I said, it’s the rare movie that starts out pretty good, then just keeps getting better. Cagney has a great character—this tough mobster with a tender center and a touch of mental illness and psychosexual complex—and he has the charisma to really make something of it. O’Brien as Pardo is good but more of a foil, but the other supporting characters, Big Ed, Verna and especially Mom, each get a juicy part to chew on and they each run with it. On top of that, it’s just a rich, complex story that just grows thornier and more interesting, and it ends with a big visceral ending. If you like noir but you want it a little tougher, more gangstery, more tough guys, more dastardly dames, more unhealthy mother-son relationships, more prison life and more big-time crime, this is for you! Now I need to see a lot more Cagney films.
Sure, it’s very involving, rich, complex, and lots of fun at the same time.