Johnny Cool, 1963. 9.5/10

Henry Silva and Elizabeth Montgomery star in this intense crime drama. Silva is Johnny/Salvatore Giordano, a Sicilian hit man who’s sent to the U.S. by crime boss Colini (Marc Lawrence) to take care of some loose ends–bump off recalcitrant mafioso. To provide a smokescreen, Johnny Cool’s death is faked. .

Also with Telly Savalas, Mort Saul, Jim Backus, and even Elisha Cook, Jr. (unsurprisingly, he’s an undertaker). Montgomery is Johnny Cool’s girlfriend, Darien/Dare. Thanks to some cameos, more cool’s provided by Ratpackers Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joey Bishop.

In any case the opening song ‘Johnny Cool’ is uncool faux hipster-style. There’s some good background stuff to establish Colini’s mentoring of the young Salvatore in wartime Sicily. He saves his mom by pulling the pin on a German soldier’s hand grenade. Still, she’s killed by another soldier; he joins partisans headed up by Colini.

Wow, quite a segue, as we’re twenty years on, at a wedding. Some swells drive by in a Dual-Ghia; a Ratpack carriage, no doubt. Salvatore is a wanted man. An American correspondent is introduced. Reflecting on the war, Salvatore says “In war, you fight for yourself.” As if punctuating that statement, there’s an attack, apparently by the police, supported by the army.

Salvatore gets away, buf the other guy’s blasted. Strangely, it’s Salvatore who’s reported dead. It sas a set up–“the world thinks Giordano is dead.” That’s Colini, affecting to be a monk. He’s got something in mind. “You will be my son” if Salvatore will do Colini’s business. Not just for money, but Salvatore will “inherit my kingdom.”

Shazam! Salvatore is making the scene in America; he’s Johnny Cool in New York. And he meets Dare–in a bar, of course. She’s with her boss; Johnny meanwhile is busy dispatching some hoods. That gets Dare’s attention, but he’s “not buying” her. Among the skyscrapers, in a fancy office, the mobsters are convening with their boss, Vince Satangelo (Savalas), who is worried about Johnny popping up.

Now, we’re at the races with Johnny, and so is Dare. “What do you do for kicks?” she asks. Winning jillions on a horse. Later, at her place, he gets a call to meet up in a hotel room–sounds fishy. Well, a gambling den, actually. Complete with Sammy Davis, Joey Bishop, and a craps table. Johnny loses a few (thousand), and wins some, but hey, it’s just money . Uh oh, cops come to bug Dare about Johnny.

But they’re not cops, they’re hoods from the guys running the table games. Well, there’s mayhem–at the table and at Dare’s. Johnny’s pretty good with the karate. Davis has some magic in those dice. Johnny: “lets see an eleven.” Davis: “you wouldn’t settle for a seven, wouldja?” Johnny: “No baby.” When Johnny returns and finds that Dare’s been beat up by the goons he goes after them. Both get stabbed with a kitchen knife.

Time for Johnny to meet up with Vince. “I’m not here for a job. I’m here to take it all.” They talk about drugs, sources, etc. Oh, but Santanegelo, is a “legitimate” businessman. Right. Anyway, Johnny wants Dare to come with him. None too soon, as another bunch of thugs would’ve broke in on her again, if the lovebirds hadn’t just skipped out.

She’s made it to L.A. Now we see a board meeting, and a lobbyist or frontman for Santangelo. Looks like Johnny’s setting up Mr. Big at the train station. Santangelo, meanwhile, is busy huddling with assorted mafia dons. Johnny drives to Vegas–been a while since we’ve had the roulette wheel in action. He calls this guy Hinds (John McGiver); then we see Johnny cruising and schoomzing the tables and gamblers.

Undoubtedly, they’re cover for something. Well, actually, it’s Hinds that’s up to something. He holds a shotgun to Johnny. Mr. Cool shows his coolness by overwhelming the pudgy Hines. Then he has to blast an underling who offers that Colini called him a ‘brother’, and that the Sicilian don is using Johnny. He’s right.

Time to go back to Sicily and get even with Colini. Dare tells him, aptly, that “Johnny is a name. Giordano is a man!” Santangelo calls Colini, who disclaims all knowledge of and responsibility for Johnny. The cops huddle in Vegas, trying to finger both Santangelo and Johnny. Meanwhile, Johnny’s rigging a dynamite bomb for a guy named Crandall (Brad Dexter).

Hey, what a crazy poolside explosion! Anyway, the cool couple plans to rendevous in New York. To kill time, Dare goes to a hair salon, but inconveniently runs into a friend. Well, the friend’s party that night gives Dare an out, and she takes it. A swinging deal, with the twist the dance of the moment. Johnny is literally up to something now, taking a construction rig up the side of a skyscraper to visit Santangelo. (The ambush from the window thing was used to good effect in 1972’s Shaft.)

Who else is left for Johnny to kill? Well, he goes to a cathedral to see the grieving mafioso. He pays his respects to Satangelo (!); he wants, as usual, everything. And he now claims that he’s set up Colini into the bargain. So, is this something can’t be fixed?

Back on the West Coast, Dare wakes up from the party…and spills a few too many beans to Suzy. She “wants him so badly, that I’d grovel to him.” Despite knowing he’s a murderer. She calls one of the victim’s families to give up Johnny’s location there.

Unsuspecting, he comes to his supposed rendevous with Dare, only to find the widow instead. And tons of henchman. In captivity, his tormentors tell him how he’s going to be treated in Edgar Allan Poe terms After a scuffle, he finally gets stabbed. It’s up to Dare to tell the cops in L.A. that Johnny’s dead. “I killed him” she says, histrionically. An agonizing bit of the ‘Johnny Cool’ song, and we’re done with these dons.

This is much better than I thought if would be; the performances, the plot and pacing, the atmosphere and tone, were all of a piece and contributed to a great presentation. Usually, background scenes are awkward or unnecessary, but here they set up the main story without intruding on it. (the only detail they didn’t get right was ths German troops using an U.S. Jeep). Likewise, the segue to the ’60s in America was as quick as it was smooth.

Silva make a convincing hitman; and Savalas a sleazy but wary antagonist. Montgomery has the beguiling flair that works so well with her deceptive innocence. It’s just a bit hard to swallow her taking up with Silva’s character, though. I could see their mutual attraction, and the lure of living it up with a guy who basically lights a smoke with a thousand dollar bill. But, not being so easily duped, she quickly figures out that not only is her boyfriend a hood, but an integral part of an organized crime syndicate. She does stand up to him. And, most significantly, she leaves him.

Let’s just say she’s adventurous. The settings, obviously on location, are just what we need for an immersion in this outwardly glittery, but essentially tawdry lifestyle. The Sicilan backdrop does manage to establish the original purpose of the mafia as a sort of Robin Hood outfit: protecting and supporting the locals from invaders and occupiers.

This is the sort of movie that doesn’t seem as long as it is (1 hour, 43 minutes). That’s the script deftly moving things along; we meet hoods, Johnny mows them down. In this sense the plot is very simple. But there’s considerable variation in each guy’s demise, and therefore plenty of tension. And, although Johnny is definitely cool, he’s not superman, and his death is certainly not an easy way out.

The romance complicates things (the guys going after Dare to get at Johnny, her overall complicity, etc.), but it also adds considerable depth to the story. After all, without Dare, Johnny is more or less just a sociopath, even though an iconic member of a legendary group of them. His fidelity to her mirrors his first brush with violence–killing to save his mom.

This would just about be perfect if they’d ditched that wretched title song. The folks at the boat party doing the twist was cool; as it was genuine early ’60s pop culture. That tid bit is enough reason to watch Johnny Cool. 9.5/10

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