“I made it, Ma! Top of the world!”
This is the tragedy of the legendary movie line: it looms larger than its context. When you hear the line delivered in the original movie, you can’t help but snicker because you’ve seen it parodied a million times. And therein, they say, lies the tragedy.
The “Top of the world, Ma” line is from White Heat, a must-see piece of film noir about a mentally-ill gangster (James Cagney) who breaks out of prison to hold up an oil refinery. It is a tense, cruel story of betrayal.
Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a gangster who is… um… weirdly devoted to his mother (Margaret Wycherly). Ma is the one who taught Cody about being on the top of the world. She is his world: she massages his crippling headaches; she keeps his gang in line while Cody is in prison; and, most importantly, she has never betrayed him.
Because this is a movie about betrayal, there are two inevitable train wrecks on the horizon. The first is Ma’s death. Cagney is gut-wrenchingly brilliant as the fragile Cody, reacting to the sad news about his beloved mother.
The second wreck is courtesy of Vic Pardo (Edmond O’Brien), an undercover police officer who infiltrates Cody’s gang. Pardo becomes a kind of substitute for Ma in Cody’s twisted world – he massages Cody’s headaches and warns him of danger. Unfortunately, Pardo’s cover is blown at the worst moment, with explosive consequences.
Let us not forget Virginia Mayo, who is supberb as Cody’s opportunistic wife. She is glamorous and mean, and capable of utter treachery.
(On an irrelevant side note, watch for the mobile phones the police use during the scene at the oil refinery. Those things are the size of a car bumper!)
If you’ve ever wondered why all the fuss about James Cagney, or why Raoul Walsh is considered one of the great directors, watch White Heat. Even if you’ve never wondered, watch it anyway! We consider it to be one of the best movies ever made.
Starring James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly. Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts. Directed by Raoul Walsh. Warner Brothers, 1949, 115 mins.