Cody Jarrett, a psychotic career criminal, leads his gang in a train robbery that results in murder. To avoid capture on these serious charges, Cody turns himself in on a minor charge that would seem to prove he was somewhere else at the time of the train robbery, and goes to prison for two years. In prison, he is befriended by Vic Pardo, who is really Hank Fallon, an undercover police officer. Vic successfully gains Cody’s trust and Cody brings him along on a jail break and then includes Vic in his gang as a full partner. Vic maintains his cover with Cody all the way to his biggest job, which turns out to be the robbery of a chemical plant. This climactic heist proves to be Cody’s last stand and results in a dramatic showdown with the police.
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“Made it Ma! Top of the world!”
This famous declaration marks the culmination of James Cagney’s final appearance in a Warner Brothers gangster movie, delivered as he is about to literally go up in smoke. Nothing less than a mushroom cloud is required to take this loner criminal’s defiance of authority to its ultimate conclusion in a final gaudy display of bravado. It marks the conclusion of a great performance in a film that harkens back to the Warner Brothers’ pictures of the 1930s, where both Cagney and director Raoul Walsh made their mark. Cagney made his breakthrough performance in 1931’s “Public Enemy” and added to his repertoire of gangsters in “Angels With Dirty Faces” (1938) and “The Roaring Twenties (1939). The latter was directed by Walsh as well.
The sharper psychological insight comes in observing the relations between Cody and his gang, which includes his mother, Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) and his unfaithful wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo). Raoul Walsh builds tension by effectively dramatizing the increasing paranoia of gang life, as each player begins to turn on the other in ever more brazen acts of betrayal and violence. Walsh expertly works suspense during the jail break sequence - what will happen to Vic Pardo (Edmond O’Brien) as police think the jail break has been called off and Pardo is on his own now with a crazed Cody; also when Cody returns to wreck revenge for his mother’s murder and menaces his wife and her lover, both of whom he suspects in his mother’s death.
The sequences detailing how Cody treats the men in his gang prefigure the treatment of this subject matter in later gangster epics such as “Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos”, albeit less graphically. As the leader, Cody is suspicious, resentful, angry and brutal. In the initial train robbery scene, one of his men is scalded with a steam burn. Cody lets him suffer in the gang’s hideout, then leaves him to die, ordering his assassination as he makes his getaway. Later, Jarrett takes a hostage, puts him in the trunk of a car and shoots him through the trunk door. “How you doin’ Parker?” “It’s filthy in here, I need a little air” “I’ll give you a little air”. Cagney’s brutal assurance as he spits these lines out is worthy of anything Joe Pesci has done in a Scorsese film.
Aside from Cagney, Edmond O’Brien as the undercover officer who infiltrates Cody’s gang, gives a low key and workman like performance, which works well beside the flamboyance of Cagney’s Jarrett. Virginia Mayo is knowing, tough and bold as Verna, and is especially convincing in the scene where she desperately tries to placate Cody when he arrives looking for his mother’s killer. Margaret Wycherly as Cody’s fanatically devoted mother is imperious and frail at the same time. The rest of the supporting cast is solid studio stock company calibre.