The Story: One of my favorite actors was George C. Scott. And one of his favorite actors? James Cagney. "Jimmy" Cagney. He was a little guy, but he always looked big on the screen, because his actions were big, his mannerisms were big—theatrical, but never looking phoney in the movies. Like Spencer Tracy, he was an economical actor and used his body language for a lot of it. And Cagney always thought of himself as a dancer first—"a hoofer," in his words—that dancer's grace and flexibility allowed him to do stuff a lot of actors didn't and wouldn't.
Take a look at this scene from "White Heat." It's all physical. The extremes of the head-ache on Cody Jarrett—psychosomatic, epilepsy, hyper-tension, tumor, tantrum—are all in how Cagney holds himself, his eyes are usually closed, his face constricted, his soulders hunched like a bull, his body flailing. Even the comedic gambit of the scene—middle aged Cody sitting on his elderly Mom's lap—is a physical bit.
Cagney used everything. And he's particularly good in this movie. "White Heat" was a by-the-book gangster movie, but Cagney had his pick of scripts and could change them to his liking. It was his idea (according to his autobiography "Cagney by Cagney") to make the psychotic Cody a "mama's boy"—making him a weakling not to be emulated. And that idea pays off in all sorts of perverse ways, his freak-out in a prison mess hall being the epitome of extreme reactions. As well as his inevitable orgiastic self-destruction in the final reel.
That's all set-up in this scene, as Cody has a "headache." Ma, by the way, in another perverse touch is played by Margaret Wycherly, who played Gary Cooper's saintly mother in "Sergeant York." She plays crazy as well as Cagney does.
Cagney, despite his tough-guy image, was universally loved. When he made a surprise visit on-stage at the Queen's Mother's command birthday performance, she stood at his appearance, unprecedented. When he died in 1986, President Ronald Reagan delivered his eulogy. On BBC's Parkinson, Orson Welles called Cagney "maybe the greatest actor to ever appear in front of a camera."
The Set-Up: After a daring train robbery, the "Cody Jarrett Gang" is hiding out in a remote mountain cabin. One member is severely steam-burned and needs medical attention, but that's not upper-most on the toad-squirming mind of Cody (Cagney). After a week of holding out in the cold, the gang is getting restless, including Cody's good-for-nothing wife, Verna (the spunky Virginia Mayo). Cody attempts some tough-love.
Verna Jarett: What else does a girl do around this bear trap?
Ma: There's plenty you can do without wearing out the mattress.
Verna: It's the only place I don't freeze. I've been cold for a week. Not even a fire. Who's gonna see a little bit of smoke miles from nowhere?
Cody: Help Ma with the grub.
Collin: He's getting worse. He needs a doc.
Cody: When the time comes.
Verna: Want some coffee, Ed?
Big Ed: Thanks, Verna.
Cody: Let him get it himself.
Cody: My wife don't wait on nobody.
Cody: You know something, Verna...
Cody: ...if I turn my back long enough for Big Ed to put a hole in it...there'd be a hole in it.
Cody: Big Ed. Great Big Ed.
Cody: You know why they call him that? Because his ideas are big.
Cody: Someday he's gonna get a really big one about me.
Cody: It'll be his last.
Cody turns to check his pistol and slowly, it begins to come on. Then he winces in pain and begins to keen mournfully, writhing then falling from his chair, the gun in his hand discharging, scaring the hoods.
Blindingly, Cody stumbles flailing for the bedroom, where he collapses on the ground, writhing on the floor. Ma follows dutifully, shutting the door behind her.
Verna: That's the second one he's had in a month.
Big Ed: He's nuts, just like his old man.
In the bedroom, Cody is stumbling around the room in agony, hands on his head. He collapses on the bed and pounds the mattress in searing pain. Ma begins to massage his head and speaks to him, reassuringly.
Ma Jarrett: It's these mountains, Cody.
Ma: It's not good for you, cold all the time. Can't breathe the air. Let's get out, son.
Cody: It's going.
Ma: It's going?
Ma: You sure?
Cody: Yeah. It's like...
Cody: ...having a red-hot buzz saw inside my head.
Ma: No, not yet, son. Don't let them see you like that.
Ma: Might give some of them ideas.
Cody: Always thinking about your Cody, aren't you?
Ma: That's right.
Ma: Top of the world, son.
Cody: Don't know what I'd do without you, Ma.
Ma: Now go on out. Show them you're all right.
Cody: What are you all gaping at?
Cody: And I thought I told you to help Ma with the groceries.
Words by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts
Pictures by Sidney Hickox and Raoul Walsh
"White Heat" is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.