Johnny Eager, 1941. 7/10

Interesting crime drama with a slick performance from Robert Taylor, a great supporting cast, and smooth plotting and pacing. Taylor’s Johnny spends nearly all of the film as a parolee cooking up his gangster empire so brazenly that everyone seems in his pocket. Falling for Lana Turner (as Lisbeth) seems to be nothing more than another ploy in his criminal strategy. Van Heflin, as Johnny’s confidant Jeff, is a sort of wayward Dr. Jekyll, with literary witticisms punctuating his emotional empathy. Johnny is all surface charm and exudes confidence; whereas Jeff is physically barely functioning, but acts as Johnny’s conscience (“pickled” as one reviewer aptly puts it) and his soul.

Things come so easily for Johnny: he manages to blackmail the D.A. (Lisbeth’s step-dad) by implicating her in a simulated murder, fend off Robert Sterling (as her on-again, off-again boyfriend Jimmy), control a criminal gang while keeping rivals at bay, and, as a result of all of these moves, make a quick fortune. In other words, he drives everyone nuts. Exiling his ‘dame’ Garnet (Patricia Dana) means no more to him than upgrading furniture (to the more classy Lisbeth). What saves the film from being a parade of Johnny’s savoir-faire is the comeuppance he gets in the noirish ending.

He finally has the guts, presumably for the first time in his life, to renounce his credo that “we’re all fakes.” At this point things get more psychological as Lisbeth won’t believe she didn’t kill the flunky Julio. But Johnny, realizing that he indeed loves her, arranges for her to see the very real Julio, and let her conscience off the hook. It’s not really clear why there has to be a gun battle with the rival gang, as we’ve just seen Johnny ‘square’ things with them. It even seems absurd, as Johnny still seems to have the upper hand with Lisbeth, and could just leave with her after Julio is identified.

I think, though, that the violent denouement shows Johnny unable to escape who he is; he realizes that Lisbeth would only be dragged down by him. By deliberately putting himself in harm’s way, he saves her. He’s at last capable of love, but knows that he can’t be an ordinary guy like Jimmy. This bit of tragedy comes at us literally in a hail of bullets, dramatically illustrating Johnny’s redemptive sacrifice.

If you can survive Johnny’s rat-a-tat-tat slang and perpetual living-on-cloud-nine smugness, it’s worth waiting for the his emotional awakening and fateful self-destruction. 7/10.

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