James Cagney is obviously no stranger to the gangster genre. He played a whole slew of criminals throughout his career. There is a difference here than compared to many other of his criminals and that is with the nature of Jarrett. Where in Angles With Dirty Faces he played a bad guy who had a soft spot somewhere down there. In White Heat Jarrett is someone rotten down to the core. Even something that could seem like a soft spot such as the closeness to his mother seems more disturbing that anything else. This is probably the evilest character Cagney ever played despite having played so many violent characters in his career.
In Angles With Dirty Faces Cagney would go from a somewhat charming fellow but fall into the role of the menacing criminal when necessary. Cagney as Jarrett though never has the vicious criminal go away. He makes Cody as a constantly violent man, and his variation is that of becoming worse. He is on the edge to begin with, and Cagney plays it that the only place Cody can go is off the edge. Cagney takes this specific way of portraying of Cody and goes all the way with it. He never lets up on the menace with Cody here and that works. In the scenes where Cody is with his wife Cagney stays true to the character never letting up on the idea that Cody could just snap from the slightest thing.
This was that Cagney takes with Cody absolutely works in making him an effective, and importantly unpredictable villain. It is quite interesting to see Cagney to play a character of this all the way, and not hold back at all. Cagney is always good at being the villain because he always manages to be quite energetic in his evil, and here he has the same sort of appropriate fun in his portrayal. He puts a great deal of glee in his evil as Cody. He makes this portrayal memorable and it stands aside from his other performances of his somewhat similar characters by just how far he goes with his intensity and insanity here that really works in making Cody a memorable villain.
The highlights of Cagney's performance comes in the moments where the already psychotic Cody snaps. The first time it occurs when he is told that his mother is dead. Cagney is great in the scene as he shows Cody break down mentally, and physically in a fit of anger and heartbreak. It is a very powerful moment, and Cagney successfully shows the only place Cody really has left to go. The other time this occurs is at the very end of the film and this almost animal side of Cody comes out again when he is backed into a corner. Again Cagney is excellent showing the insanity of Cody fully that leaves without any sort restrains left leaving him truly deranged. It is incredible end to his performance that expresses his character's lunacy in one final extreme burst.
This is a very strong performance by Cagney particularly because the most expressive moments are actually his best. The reason these scenes work so well, besides the fact that Cagney just is fascinating to watch in them, is that he builds to them properly through his tense performance as Cody the rest of the film. Cagney really succeeds well with his performance here as Cody Jarrett. It is particularly remarkable the way Cagney makes Cody such a unique memorable character all in his own right despite playing so many similar characters. Cagney manages to do this so well by finding what makes Cody different from those other characters, and expressing theses differences brilliantly. Cagney honestly makes this film with his terrific villainous turn.