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Plot Details: This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.

From Iron Horse to Trojan Horse

White Heat (1949) on IMDb

Plot Overview

At the California State line, the Jarrett gang hijacks a train, killing four crew members and sustaining an injury them­selves (“Zuckie got scalded.”) The news­paper proclaims, "BANDITS JUMPED A MAIL TRAIN." The gang holes up in an isolated cabin in Tahoe County three hundred miles away. Instead of lighting a fire—its smoke would draw attention—they bundle up in winter coats, they bandage Zuckie (Ford Rainey) like a mummy, and gang moll Verna Jarrett (Virginia Mayo) figures on looking good in mink. They decide to leave under cover of an approaching storm (“A storm keeps every­body busy”), but their leader Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) doesn't want to take conspicuous Zuckie with them in case they get stopped. He promises him to send back a doctor, and they take off for L.A. to meet their money man. From here on out it's a contest between gang solidarity and T–men expertise, one lame horse having been put out of his misery.


After eluding authorities Cody plans their next heist, of a heavily guarded oil refinery payroll. He relates “a story ma told me, a horse story” concerning the ancient city of Troy whose assailants used “a great big wooden horse” to get inside. Their “horse” will be a big ole tanker truck to hide the boys inside. On hearing the plan, one of them says, “We might all profit from a study of classical literature.”

Merle Rubin, reviewing for the “L.A. Times” Charles Rowan Beye's book Odysseus: A Life, writes:

The Greeks called him Odysseus; the Romans, Ulysses. He is the hero of “The Odyssey,” the Homeric epic of the 8th century bc, and he also plays an important role in Homer's “Iliad.” A cool-headed, rational, wily fellow—short, burly, barrel-chested—Odysseus stands out among his tall, handsome, hot-tempered comrades-in-arms in the Trojan War. For his habit of dissembling, Dante placed him in Hell. …

When King Agamemnon's men were rounding up the other Greeks to wage war against Troy, Odysseus feigned insanity to get out of it.

It is evident that Cody in this movie represents Odysseus/Ulysses. He is “short, burly, barrel-chested”, a “rational, wily fellow” among his taller, hand­some confed­erates. When “he was a kid, he used to fake head­aches to get his mother's attention” (and now they continue for real.) As for Dante he writes of “that great flame … which rose from the pyre. … Forever round this path Ulysses … move[s] in such dress” (222, Canto xxvi, Circle 8, Bolgia 8), intimating, perhaps, Cody's fiery end at the “top of the world.”

“His habit of dissembling” covered more than the Trojan Horse incident. Webster defines “dissemble vi: to put on a false appearance : conceal facts, intentions, or feelings under some pretense.” The other day I went to the window to investigate a bird strike. My next door neighbor had also come out to investigate a strike on her window. It was a young bird who hadn't yet learned not to attempt flying through window glass. To a bird that window was dissembling, putting on the appearance of open air. This movie is like that, instances of dissembling happening one right after another.

Cody's wife Verna dissembled w.r.t. her feelings when fooling around with ‘Big Ed’ Somers (Steve Cochran) on the sly now that her husband was in prison, and then he breaks out and shows up unexpectedly saying, “I told you I'd be back. Now tell me you're glad to see me.” A biblical parallel can be found in the King James Version (KJV), (Gal. 2:12-13)

Before that certain came from James, Peter did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation.

Peter had been cozying up to the Gentiles, but then he put some distance from them when fellow Jews showed up with James. Other Jews like­wise dissembled with him, and Barnabas was carried away with their dissimulation. Fowler's dictionary delineates, “dissemble, dissimulate. There is no clear line of distinction between the two. Dissemble is the word in ordinary use, & the other might have perished as a Need­less Variant, but has perhaps been kept in being because it is, unlike dissemble, provided with a noun (dissimulation), & a contrasted verb (simulate), & is more convenient for use in connexion with these” (117). The noun form shows up in the verse, (Rom. 12:9) “Let love be without dissimulation,” as I discussed in my review of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E..” Broadly speaking our love is supposed to be without dissimulation, and “White Heat” offers lots of examples of dissembling to be avoided.

The phony headaches in Cody's youth started it. Then Cody dissembled w.r.t. his intentions when he told Zuckie he'd send a doc back for him. Dante describes one such dissembler in hypocrite hell: “That one nailed across the road counselled the Pharisees that it was fitting one man be tortured for the public good” (201, Canto xxiii, Circle 8, Bolgia 6). He was referring, of course, to Caiaphas mentioned in John 11:49-52, the Pharisees being notorious for their hypocrisy. Cody felt it better that Zuckie die than that the whole gang perish. Our preacher says the Greek word for “dissimulation” in Rom. 12:9 means hypocrisy. It does seem to transfer well into English, at least into the realm of intentions.

Verna's dissimulation about being glad to see Cody is in the realm of feelings about which she was insincere. Romans 12:9, NIV says, “Love must be sincere.” When one of the gang in the boonies where they're holed up, exposes a man in fisher­man regalia claiming to be bass fishing—in “trout country, no bass for a hundred miles”—, he says, “This guy's a phony, Cody.” The English Standard Version (ESV) uses similar wording, “Let love be genuine,” not phony, dissembling about fishy facts. This movie has wall-to-wall dissembling in it, and if you don't like that all-encompassing word the “L.A. Times” uses ( the KJV), you may take your modern version and see which instances from it apply where. (I mention some additional version applications in my review of “American Ultra.”)

Production Values

White Heat” (1949) was directed by Raoul Walsh. It was adapted by Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts from a story suggested by Virginia Kellogg but may have roots in Classical literature. It stars James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien, Steve Cochran and Margaret Wycherly. James Cagney gives does an astounding acting job, one of his best characters ever. Wycherly is superb as the staunch and tetchy Ma Jarrett. O'Brien walks a fine line infiltrating an organization that is not strong on trust.

“White Heat” came out before movies were rated—they followed a production code back then—but in Australia it's PG, which looks about right to me for all its brutality. It's in Black and White with a relatively square aspect ratio of 1.37 : 1. The train robbery that opens the film is likely based on the robbery of Southern Pacific's "Gold Special" by the DeAutremont Brothers in 1923. The signalling bug the T–man plants under the chassis of a heist vehicle looks technic­ally workable, consisting of two tubes (oscillator & amplifier) on a scrounged radio chassis with a hand-wound tank coil. The tracking sequence consisted of alternating and super­imposed shots of the bug under a moving vehicle, the tracking cars with rotat­able loop antennas on their roofs, and the co-ordinating station with maps on the wall. This was back in the days when the FCC had man­power and to spare, to “get every direction finder car they got.” The trans­istor had yet to be invented, to say nothing of GPS, but the older technology makes for more drama. The music is by Max Steiner whose strands and strains are eerie but mostly loud and intrusive. The photography by Sidney Hickox adds noir flourishes for realism and atmosphere. Walsh's direction maintains a brisk pace and rhythm to match Cody Jarrett's state of mind. The action is constant with the tension mounting to the finale.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

“White Heat” shows the use of methodical police procedure and technology. It carries a documentary-style realism off­setting the suspension of disbelief necessary in a gangster film. It contains psychological drama, an undercover story, a consummate robbery, and modern police procedure all rolled into one film. If you like gangster films, this one is as good as they come.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: Edge of your seat action-packed. Suitability for children: Suitable for children under guidance. Special effects: Well done special effects. Suspense: Keeps you on the edge of your seat. Video Occasion: Fit For a Friday Evening. Overall product rating: Five stars out of five.

Works Cited

Unless otherwise indicated scripture is quoted from the King James Version. Pub. 1611, rev. 1769. Software.

  Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. Print.

Dante Alighieri. The Inferno. Translated by John Ciardi. New York: Mentor Books, 1954. Print.

Fowler, H.W., A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. USA. Oxford UP. 1946. Print.

Rubin, Merle. Odysseus' tale of myth and mortality. Book review of Charles Rowan Beye, Odysseus: A Life. Entertainment section of the “Los Angeles Times,” March 8, 2004. WEB.

Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, Mass.: MERRIAM-WEBSTER. 1984. Print.