Films, Lobby

Johnny Eager (1941): “Just another hood I guess”

johnny eager 1941 4 Johnny Eager (1941): Just another hood I guess

“If this were serious drama one might complain that what makes Johnny [Eager] tick remains a mystery, that lovely students of sociology aren’t apt to embark on discussion with a parolee on Cyrano de Bergerac’s apostrophe to a kiss. But as pure melodrama Johnny Eager moves at a turbulent tempo. Mr. Taylor and Miss Turner strike sparks in their distraught love affair. Van Heflin provides a sardonic portrait of Johnny’s Boswell, full of long words and fancy quotations.”

–  Theodore Strauss, New York Times (1942)

A confoundingly entertaining pastiche the 1942 MGM gangster melodrama Johnny Eager has Robert Taylor and Lana Turner as star-crossed lovers, with Van Heflin as a drunkard and consigliore to Taylor’s titular mob boss.  Heflin received a richly-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role.

An unashamedly contrived scenario by John Lee Mahin from a story by James Edward Grant has Johnny the conniving gangster find redemption too late and with a belly full of lead.  There are queer overtones as Heflin holds the dying Taylor in his arms whose last words wax nostalgic for the ‘figurative mountains’ they never climbed together.

“a motley crew of craven hoods, deliver a mesmerising operatic finale, closed by a wonderfully ironic final frame that is pure cinema”
Emeritus director Mervyn LeRoy fashions a faux silk purse that has you believing the absurd coincidences and machinations which propel the flatly presented narrative to an out-of-left-field hiatus of beguiling expressionist cred. Much is owed to veteran DP Harold Rosson whose masterful lighting of the final sequence on dark city streets elevates the affair to something more than the sum of what has come before.  Taylor and Turner, who are inspired to break-out of their corn-fed roles with the able assistance of Heflin and a motley crew of craven hoods, deliver a mesmerising operatic finale, closed by a wonderfully ironic final frame that is pure cinema.

johnny eager 1941 3 Johnny Eager (1941): Just another hood I guess

johnny eager 1941 2 Johnny Eager (1941): Just another hood I guess

johnny eager 1941 1 Johnny Eager (1941): Just another hood I guess

johnny eager 1941 10 Johnny Eager (1941): Just another hood I guess

johnny eager 1941 11 Johnny Eager (1941): Just another hood I guess

 

3 Comments

  1. “Taylor and Turner, who are inspired to break-out of their corn-fed roles with the able assistance of Heflin and a motley crew of craven hoods, deliver a mesmerising operatic finale, closed by a wonderfully ironic final frame that is pure cinema.”

    Tony, I completely agree that Van Heflin’s electrifying performance as Taylor’s colleague, filled with bouts of crying, self-loathing and dramatic intensity, was one of Oscar’s finest hours. It’s a complex portrayal, which is remarkably modern, and as you note it contains some very clear homo erotic attraction and Freudian undertones. The rap on the film from some over the years is that it doesn’t make much sense, but as always such a charge is the lazy way out. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but the cast is quite impressive (Taylor is no Robert Mitchum, but he hits the mark as a soulless thug who will use everyone he has to, and Turner exudes a sexy demeanor) and Harold Rossen’s masterful lighting gives the film noirish distinction. The contrivances you speak of are there in the plot which doesn’t offer anything new, but all in all I’d say it’s a pretty strong work. Your review is beautifully concise and a real please to read with the poetic passages. Your final sentence is a knockout. Terrific stuff!

  2. Thanks Sam. Heflin is indeed a revelation and lifts the picture to unforeseen heights.

  3. Cigar Joe

    Saw this recently myself some great noir cinematography

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