“Freeze! I’m Ma Baker.
Put your hands in the air and give me all your money!
This is the story of Ma Baker,
the meanest cat from old Chicago town…”
– Boney M, Ma Baker
By the time Kate “Ma” Barker (Boney M changed it to ‘Baker’ because it worked better in a lyric) was gunned down by FBI agents alongside one of her sons in 1935, she’d already joined the rogue’s gallery that caught the public imagination during the Thirties, villains like John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, and Baby Face Nelson. Historians believe that Barker had little or no involvement in the crimes of her four sons, but that didn’t stop her becoming a folkloric character – the ruthless gun-toting gang leader who robbed and killed alongside her four sons.
Popular culture perpetuated the myth, from songs by German pop groups to exploitation flicks like Ma Barker’s Killer Brood and Bloody Mama. Batman faced off against Ma Parker and her boys in the ‘60s TV series, and there’s more than a hint of the Barker family dynamic in the bumbling Fratelli clan in The Goonies.
The greatest film to originate from the Ma Barker myth is Raoul Walsh’s White Heat. It was intended to be the true story of Ma Barker, but the story changed during production. Ma Barker became Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly, terrific in the role), and her four sons were whittled down to one monstrous gangster with serious mommy issues – Cody Jarrett. It’s probably a good thing too, because with James Cagney’s supersized presence, there’s no room in the movie for any more…
Cagney started out in vaudeville as a hoofer and comedian before making his name in movies. His star making role came in 1931, as prohibition era gangster Tom Powers in Public Enemy, around the same time the Barker boys joined forces with Alvin Karpis and stepped up their crime spree. He played a wide variety of roles, but became typecast thanks to other tough guy parts in films like Angels with Dirty Faces, Taxi! (where the often misquoted Cagney line “You dirty rat!” originated from), and The Roaring Twenties. Indeed, even after winning his only Oscar playing song-and-dance man George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, the typecasting stuck.
White Heat was something of a comeback for Cagney, who had tried staying away from gangster roles but needed another hit. The film starts with the Jarrett gang attempting an audacious railway heist. Unfortunately they’re a pretty trigger happy bunch, a few people get murdered, and one of the gang is terribly scalded by steam from the engine.
The gang end up on the lam in the wilderness, hiding out in an old cabin. Along for the ride there’s Cody’s sour-faced trophy wife Verna (Virginia Mayo), and Big Ed (Steve Cochran), Cody’s right hand man who clearly has designs on gang leadership…and Verna.
Moving out ahead of a storm, the gang leaves some clues behind and the heat closes in. After a skirmish with a lawman, Cody decides to take the wrap for another robbery that happened at the same time as their botched train heist. The lesser crime will provide a decent alibi, copping him a softer sentence and keeping him out of the electric chair.
The Feds are sure that Cody’s responsible for the train robbery, so they send undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) into the prison to pose as Jarrett’s cellmate and, hopefully, become his confidant. Cody is suspicious at first, but Fallon gains the paranoid gangster’s trust, setting up a good old fashioned double cross and an explosive finale.
The film is a superior potboiler, packed with incident, snappy dialogue and ruthless action. It’s high pulp, mashing together elements of film noir with gangster thriller, heist flick, prison drama and police procedural. It’s a heady mix, and tonally it is closer to Nicholas Ray’s gothic wild west melodrama Johnny Guitar than the moodier, more fatalistic noir of Double Indemnity or Out of the Past.
Subtle it is not, and all the better for it. Warner Bros’ own publicity material describes Cody as a “homicidal paranoiac with a mother fixation” – a mother fixation to almost rival that of Norman Bates. With Cagney in the role, Jarrett is a boiling mass of uncontrolled, violent emotions, bubbling to the surface in the form of agonizing headaches, which only his beloved mother can soothe. It’s a volcanic, incredibly entertaining performance from Cagney, all the way through to Jarrett’s suitably cataclysmic demise, yelling the iconic line: “Made it, ma! Top of the world!”
White Heat is showing as a pop up screening at the former penitentiary (Káznice) on Cejl, as a reprise of some of the films shown at this year’s Noir Film Festival. The ticket price includes a guided tour and a lecture on film noir, and you can find more details about the festival here – noirfilmfestival.cz/en/
See more information about the screening in Kaznice at kinoart.cz, (takes place 29th Nov at 20:00).