Monday, June 22, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Johnny Eager(1941)

Robert Taylor and Lana Turner.

Let me just start off with my final judgement on this film; Johnny Eager is one of the most purely fun films I've seen as part of this project. It moves with a briskness of pace, it's plot is tightly wound, and its characterizations are enjoyable throughout. It may not break ground in the area of cinematic arts, but it doesn't need to. Johnny Eager sets out to entertain audiences with a gripping crime tale, and embraces the cliches of the genre instead of trying to skirt them. Though it does, in a way, subvert some of them, as I'll get to later. Johnny Eager is a pre-code crime film wrapped up in Hayes Code-era film noir trappings. A film noir variation on Public Enemy or Little Caesar, films whose 'crime doesn't pay' messages are undone by how much fun they make being a criminal appear.

Johnny Eager, the character this time, is not exactly a new invention. He's the criminal with a moral code, the smartest man in the room at all times. A man who uses his brains to destroy his enemies more than he uses his guns. He's a man who can be cruel and merciless, but is also kind and loyal to his subordinates, until they start thinking of crossing him. It's easy to run through a list of Johnny's crimes in this film and come to the conclusion that he's a heartless monster leaving nothing but tragic loss in his wake, but as played by Robert Taylor he becomes sympathetic to the point that the audience may find itself justifying his crimes in their minds. It's true that he kills those who threaten him, but it's also true that he'll find non-lethal solutions if given the chance. Johnny Eager typifies the sort of anti-hero criminal that would come to populate the crime pictures of the 60s and 70s, and at times feels like a prototype for the films of Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Abel Ferrara.

Johnny Eager, the film, revels in the life of crime in a way that a lot of Hayes Code pictures wouldn't allow themselves. Johnny's life looks fun. By day he pretends to have put his criminal past behind him, working as a cabdriver and living with his sister. But at night, away from the eyes of his parole officer, he heads up a sprawling gambling syndicate with influence in nearly every social institution. The film that repeatedly came to mind as I watched this one was King of New York. Johnny Eager and Frank White have a lot in common, in both their ruthlesness and their implied moral code. Replace the hospital Frank is concerned with with the dog track Johnny Eager hopes to open, and King of New York could be a very(very!) loose remake.

I had so much fun watching Johnny outsmart his enemies that I forgot for awhile I was watching a Hayes Code film. It was entertaining watching Johnny get the upper hand on adversaries who continually thought he was down for the count, or who had seriously misjudged his deviousness, that I secretly hoped the film would find a way to skirt the restriction of the times that required all criminals to be brought to justice, or at least punishment, in the final reel. I knew his downfall was coming, but I didn't want to see it. Johnny was so much smarter than everyone else that to see him die in a hail of bullets seemed to be anticlimactic. Luckily, the film invests a bit more into it's finale than might be immediately apparent.

Yes, Johnny is punished for his crimes, but in the end it's his good deeds that lead to his fall from grace. It isn't the murders he's responsible for, it isn't the multiple crimes he's committed throughout the film, he's punished only once he tries to make amends to someone out of love. In the world of Johnny Eager, crime does pay, and it pays very well. As long as you remain clever and ruthless, as long as you form no meaningful attachments... well, in the words of the Geto Boys....

So, I realize now that I've not spoken about the plot at all, or even mentioned Lana Turner or Van Heflin. It should be clear, though, that I enjoyed the film quite a bit. But let me just add that Van Heflin, as Johnny's always-drunk Jiminy Cricket figure, deserved his Best Supporting Actor win.

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