Released 2 September 1949, White Heat is widely considered one of the greatest gangster films ever. It’s so white-hot, I’d give it a rare 6 out of 5 stars. Though it was initially based on the story of gangster matriarch Ma Barker and her son Arthur (Doc), the script ended up becoming largely fictional.
Twisted criminal Arthur “Cody” Jarrett (James Cagney) and his cohorts rob a mail train in the Sierra Nevadas, killing four members of the crew. When Cody’s last victim slumps over, he triggers a steam pipe which blasts right into the face of Zuckie (Ford Rainey in his film début) and severely burns him. The gang then escapes to Arizona with their $300,000.
There are two ladies in Cody’s gang, his overbearing Ma (Margaret Wycherly) and his long-suffering wife Verna (Virginia Mayo), who have an acrimonious relationship with one another. Cody clearly prioritises Ma over Verna, which adds to the friction. He also suffers from crippling migraines.
The other members of the gang are loath to leave with an incoming storm, but Cody thinks it’s the perfect chance to slip away unnoticed. Feeling the injured Zuckie a liability, he sends Cotton to kill him and believes the resulting gunshots did just that. Instead Cotton fired into the air.
Zuckie succumbs to his injuries anyway, and the authorities figure out he’s linked to the Jarrett gang. Cody is horrified to learn about this, and even more so when Verna says Ma is at the market buying strawberries for her golden prince instead of safe in their Los Angeles hideout.
Ma’s car is tracked to the motel, where the trio are packing to go on the lam again. The officers think they have their suspects cornered, but Cody shoots his attempted arresting officer and his party races away to a drive-in.
In the car, Cody announces his plans to go to Illinois and give himself up for a lesser crime an associate committed, meriting only two years. Verna thinks he’ll still be wanted for the train robbery, but Cody assures her if he takes the rap for the Illinois crime, it’ll be the perfect alibi for the more serious crime.
Philip Evans, the U.S. Treasury investigator whom Cody shot, hatches a plan with undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) to bring Cody to justice for the crime he actually committed. Hank will be planted in Cody’s cell as Vic Pardo and earn his complete trust.
Meanwhile, on the outside, Big Ed (Steven Cochran) takes control of the gang, starts an affair with Verna, and pays prisoner Roy Parker to kill Cody by dropping heavy machinery on him. Hank gains Cody’s trust when he pushes him out of harm’s way.
Ma visits Cody to warn him about Big Ed, whom she promises to take care of. Cody thinks this is a terrible, dangerous idea, but Ma insists she’s going to do this.
Cody decides to break out of the clink to handle this ugly business himself, and invites Hank to join him. When he receives a piece of crushing news, Cody goes nuts and feels escape is even more urgent.
Once he’s back on the outside, Cody is hell-bent on revenge against Big Ed. The rest of the gang welcomes Cody back, along with other escapees including Hank.
Their next criminal operation targets a chemical plant’s payroll office, which Cody hopes will finally take him to the top of the world.