James Cagney as Arthur “Cody” Jarrett, ruthless gang leader and devoted son
Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, Fall 1949
Film: White Heat
Release Date: September 2, 1949
Director: Raoul Walsh
Wardrobe Credit: Leah Rhodes
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
One hundred years ago this week, brothers Ray, Roy, and Hugh DeAutremont attempted to rob a Southern Pacific Railroad “San Francisco Express” as it sped through the Siskiyou Mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Panicking when the heist didn’t go according to plan, the three brothers murdered four employees on the train and were forced to flee empty-handed. Famous forensic criminologist Edward Heinrich’s investigation eventually identified the DeAutremont brothers as the perpetrators, and the trio were captured after a four-year manhunt.
The “Siskiyou Massacre” of October 11, 1923 formed the basis for the opening scene in Raoul Walsh’s 1949 noir thriller White Heat, one of the great gangster movies of all time that returned James Cagney to the genre that made him famous. Cagney stars as the menacing Cody Jarrett, whose dangerous demeanor and Oedipal complex are also said to have been inspired by Depression-era crooks Francis Crowley and Fred Barker—the latter of whom was gunned down by the FBI alongside his mother “Ma” Barker in 1935.
“This was film noir, where evil not only exists, but flourishes,” wrote George Anastasia and Glen Macnow in their volume The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies. “Cagney’s Cody Jarrett isn’t a charismatic outlaw who viewers could vicariously admire, but rather a despicable embodiment of immorality, a man who takes what he wants whenever he wants it, mocking and abusing all those he comes in contact with—including the cops, members of his own gang, and his less-than-virtuous wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo).”
The opening mail train robbery sequence establishes Cody’s character, when one of his accomplices refers to Jarrett by name. Fearing that he could be identified by his colleague’s slip-up, Cody guns down the train’s engineer and fireman in cold blood—later also marking his own hapless associate for death. (The dynamic could also be argued as an inspiration for Michael Mann’s Heat, when the trigger-happy Waingro compromises a smooth heist gang’s professionalism during the opening robbery and makes him a target for their leader.)
Having avoided crime flicks for over a decade following his statement that “movies should be entertaining, not blood baths,” Cagney brought his characteristic complexity and intensity to his explosive performance as Cody Jarrett, reportedly workshopping the character with his pals Humphrey Bogart and Frank McHugh. Despite the robberies and killings depicted on screen, the biggest crime overall may be that Cagney was overlooked for an Academy Award nomination.
What’d He Wear?
When not dressed in one of his usual double-breasted suits and ties, Cody Jarrett relies on a workwear-based template for his larcenous labors: a dark work shirt, khaki trousers, black fedora, leather gloves, and a hardy jacket. During the climactic “top of the world, Ma!” payroll robbery, Cody wears a leather jacket that suits the urban environment, while this more rural train robbery in the Sierra calls for a rugged corduroy blouson jacket.
Cody wears his corduroy consistently with the fabric’s origins rooted in 18th-century Europe, where it gained favor among outdoorsmen for the durability of its tufted velveteen surface. Leading into the 20th century, finer wales and various colors transformed corduroy from just practical workwear to a sporty yet sophisticated fabric suitable for dressier suits and jackets, but Cody’s button-up blouson follows more of a workwear design.
The pin-wale corduroy (also known as “needlecord”) of Cody’s jacket is almost certainly a mid-brown color, the most traditional shade for corduroy. With its darker contrasting shawl collar and straight waistband, the jacket recalls the button-front leather A-1 flight jackets that were authorized in the late 1920s, though Cody’s jacket has slanted set-in hand pockets rather than the flapped patch hip pockets found on the A-1. Cody’s jacket was designed to close with a total of seven buttons up the front, including two buttons clustered on the waistband, though he only fastens the fourth button and the fifth button (placed just below it) appears to be missing.
Cody’s long-sleeved shirt presents very dark (and may have been black in real life), designed with a point collar, wide front placket, and button cuffs. The fit of his jacket covers the chest to the degree that I can’t tell if the shirt has a pocket or two like the lighter work shirt he later wears for the chemical office robbery.
Ubiquitous today thanks to brands like Dockers and Izod, khaki trousers were only recently rising to sartorial prominence in the late 1940s, popularized by servicemen who returned from World War II and continued sporting their G.I. slacks at home. Following examples set by the British Army in India, these light tan chino-cloth cotton trousers were first standardized for American military personnel serving in warm climates around the Spanish-American War in 1898 and grew increasingly prevalent over the following half-century.
Cody embraces the trend by wearing his light khaki cotton flat-front trousers, which rise to Cagney’s waist, where he likely holds them up with a dark leather belt that closes through a rectangular single-prong buckle. These button-fly slacks have slightly slanted side pockets, jetted back pockets (with a button to close through the left pocket only), and plain-hemmed bottoms. His dark leather work boots are derby-laced with speed hooks at the top.
What would a classic movie villain be without his traditional black hat? Cody Jarrett follows the cinematic tradition with his dark felt fedora, detailed with a matching grosgrain silk band. His work gloves are likely tan leather.
The film’s wardrobe is credited to Leah Rhodes, a contemporary costume designer who worked extensively for Warner Brothers during this era, including her Oscar-winning work for Adventures of Don Juan (1949), released the same year as White Heat.
Cody draws his usual snub-nosed Colt Detective Special when confronting the engineers aboard the train. Colt introduced this six-shot revolver in 1927, designed with a two-inch barrel to serve as a “belly gun” that could be easily carried by plainclothes police officers—hence its name. The ease of concealment balanced with the power of six .38 Special rounds in the cylinder made the Detective Special a favorite among not just cops but also crooks and civilians.
The success of the Detective Special led to the evolution of a “Second Series” in 1947, visually differentiated by a ramped front sight and grooved top-strap. However, the rounded half-moon front sight and square-notched rear sight indicate that Cody still carries an older First Series Detective Special.
How to Get the Look
Only the fedora truly dates Cody Jarrett’s train-robbing gear to the 1940s, as his hardy corduroy jacket, dark shirt, khakis, and work boots would make for a timeless, rugged, and comfortable weekend look this fall… but you should only let Cody influence your style, not your behavior!
- Brown pinwale corduroy waist-length work jacket with shawl collar, seven-button front, set-in sleeves, and slanted set-in hand pockets
- Black cotton shirt with point collar, front placket, and button cuffs
- Khaki chino flat-front trousers with wide belt loops, slightly slanted side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Dark leather belt with squared single-prong buckle
- Dark leather derby-laced work boots
- Black felt fedora with black grosgrain silk band
- Tan leather gloves
- Wristwatch on metal bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.