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

City Streets, 1931. 8/10

Crime drama with an interesting premise. A gangster, Pop Cooley (Guy Kibbie) hangs a murder rap on his daughter, Nan (Slyvia Sidney). She goes to prison; meanwhile, her boyfriend, known as The Kid (Gary Cooper), infiltrates the gang to avenge Nan. Maybe he gets too far in, because when Man gets out of the slammer, it’s no simple thing getting Kid back on track.

A real treat are the cutesy names for some of the supporting cast: there’s Big Fellow Maskel (Paul Lukas), Blackie (Stanley Fields), Pansy (Betty Sinclair), and Baldy (Bert Hanlon). Somewhat more in the mainstream, we have McCoy (William Boyd), the Police Inspector (Robert Homans) Esther (Barabara Leonard), and Agnes (Wynne Gibson). City Streets is based on a Dashiell Hammett story.

We start with Prohibition pipe line: beer trucks rolling, a bottling/ distillery, and, a payoff. Two groups of gangsters face off; look at all that beer in the barrel! Not only that, but the parting line, “no hard feelings” becomes a bit ironic, as one gangleader’s hat flows first in the barrel, and then in the Atlantic, where, no doubt, its owner ‘sleeps with the fishes’.

Pop Cooley comes out swimmingly on that deal; he glances in on Nan, who scoots out to a car and drives away. At the shooting gallery, she meets up with Kid, who can’t resist showing off. They amble around, as he can’t help winning various prizes for her.

At the beach, they cuddle “gosh, it’s great!” She muses. She wants Kid to get into her dad’s bootlegging business. Otherwise, they’d “have to live in a tent” if they got married. He’d rather be poor and honest. They argue, but make up.

When she gets home, Pops chides her for hanging out with the likes of the Kid. At a hotel, Pops sees Blackie tell off Big Fellow for hanging out with Agnes. Big Fellow asks Pops “If anything happens to Blackie, could you hold his mob together?” No problem for Pops.

So, Pops calls on Agnes and Blackie. Then he phones home, telling Nan to meet around the corner; he and Blackie are going to Joe’s. Hmm, the game is afoot. Dramatically, we see Blackie followed down the corridor by Pops’ enormous shadow.

Jan waits in an alcove, while the two guys pull up. Pops shoots Blackie, then hands the murder weapon to Nan for her to get rid of. She walks away from the scene as cops converge toward it. Unfortunately, an officer stops her. Meanwhile, Pops is at Agnes’s, going over his alibi with the cops.

Nan got caught anyway, and gets the business at police headquarters. They bring in Pops to ‘talk sense’ to her. But he tells to not give up the ghost “no one in the beer racket ever squawked on a pal yet”; he figures to trust her attorney to get her off.

So, she doesn’t talk. Pops shows up at the shooting gallery to recruit Kid. He tells Kid that the cops framed Nan; that’s not entirely made up, but leaves out the simple fact that Pops set her up in the first place. Anyway, she’s locked up for the murder, where she befriends Esther. Well, Pops convinced Kid to drive trucks for the racket.

Esther gets out, only to find that her Johnny has been killed in his own car. Ironically, Nan takes solace in her (mistaken) belief that Kid’s still clean. He visits her in prison; she’s chagrined to learn that he’s turned crooked. Not only that, but he admits “beer, I love it!” Then it’s her turn to get out of the ‘big house’.

At least Kid doesn’t get shot. Back home, she greeted by Big Fellow and good ol Pops. Dad’s disgustingly unrepenitent; possibly he was able to wangle an early release for her. She meets her new stepmom, Pansy. Kid calls Big Fellow ‘chief’. They plan a mob “coming out party” for her.

She wants to skip the party, and the mob in general; while he’s pretty much all-in. Swanky party anyway. They’ve effectively switched roles as far as mob stuff’s concerned. She tries to talk Big Fellow into laying off on Kid; Big’s basically trying to pick up on her. Agnes is not amused. But, Pops short changes his daughter again, encouraging Big to hit on her.

Kid isn’t any cool with that, but Nan warns him that Blackie was killed for less. “How about those two guys from Detroit?” Goes the idle men’s room chatter between Big and McCoy. Well, the wary couple has left already. The ‘bad’ bad guys roll up at Nans; stupidly, Kid goes to the door.

Ah, but it’s Kid who gets the drop on them. So much for the torpedoes from Detroit. Kid tells her he’s going to see to see the Big Fellow. She hesitates, but then calls Big. Looks like she’s planning an ambush of her own.

Yep, as Big takes Agnes around, Nan goes out on the street packing a pistol. Meanwhile, Kid searches for Nan at the club. Big kicks Agnes out; Nan closes in. He finds her gun. Agnes, lurking outside, sees him nuzzle up to her. Kid speeds across town, sensing trouble. Agnes peeps in the door just enough to grab the loose gun. Nan is framed again, as Agnes pops Big twice–then shuts the door, crying for help.

Kid gets there, believing Nan when she says that she didn’t do it. McCoy doesn’t agree; but when he asks who’s running the mob now, the guys guys agree that Kid does. He says that he’ll handle the situation. Calling Nan, he makes an arrangement with her; the gugs think he’s going to ‘take care of her’, permanently, that is.

McCoy confronts Agnes with evidence that Big was “giving her the air”. A packed suitcase is the tell-tale sign. Well, looks like a thrilling denouement in store. Kid and Nan, with a clump of gangsters in the back seat, chases a train at high speed. They barely make the crossing ahead of the train. He’s scaring the heck out of them; it works because he has Nan cover them while he tells them to tbrow their guns out the windows.

That accomplished, he stops. He tells them they’re gonna walk home. Plus, by the way, guys, it was Agnes, not Nan who pulled the trigger on Big, and he’s out of the beer racket. Take that. The end.

This works fine, because the Nan/Kid romance is very compelling, and the gangster stuff is equally powerful, in its way. The authenticity was spot on, as, of course, as City Streets was made during Prohibition. Although we see little actual racketeering, except at the beginning, and in bits here and there, the criminals are convincingly dangerous and deadly.

Big Fellow would seem to be the evilest guy here, but actually, Pops is worse. Not only does he allow his daughter to be framed more than once, he’s got this smug debonair attitude about it. So, we get the nervous henchmen, ths out-and-out thugs, and the gentleman sociopath. On the other hand, there’s the powerless victims, Pansey, Esther, and Agnes (who turns victimizer).

This leaves Nan and Kid, who are definitely worth rooting for. Both of them are flawed, but each finds redemption; they find that their love is what’s worth having. Cooper and Sidney’s performances are excellent, and the supporting cast shows a variety of interesting personalities.

The pacing moves the plot along without dwelling on distractions. There’s plenty of space for tension and suspense to build, as these folks manuver around each other, leaving some bodies to step over. Entertaining and involving, City Streets is well worth a look. 8/10.

Racket Busters, 1938. 6/10

In one of his early roles, Humphrey Bogart is John ‘Czar’ Martin, trucking racketeer. Fighting gangsters both inside and outside the unions are buddies Denny and ‘Skeets’ (George Brent and Allen Jenkins). Trucker movies are great because the guys are tough wise-crackers, and there’s usually plenty of highway mayhem.

The supporting cast includes Gloria Dickson as Nora, Denny’s wife; Penny Singleton as Gladys, Skeets’s girlfriend; Walter Abel as special prosecutor Hugh Allison; Henry O’Neill as the Governor; Oscar O’Shea as Skeets’ dad, Pop Wilson, and Joe Downing, as, believe it or not, Joe.

We first see headlines that proclaim “Racket Rule To Continue;” that’s thanks to favorable election results for Martin. While the hoods celebrate, there’s a different tone across town with special prosecutor Allison and the Governor. Hugh doesn’t want to jump into the ring with the gangsters just yet, but his wife pressures him.

He agrees. Martin and his cronies read the headlines stating that news, but Martin doesn’t much care; business as usual. They go to the producer market; “seven million people [New York City’s population] depending on us.” He figures the way in to this gold mine is to “organize” the truck drivers.

Hugh addresses a group of agents in his office: subpoenas fly out to various businesses preyed on by protection rackets–particularly unions. A know-nothing union man–who has shunned the rackets–nonetheless is unwilling to testify. The next guy was shown to have bought off Martin, but he won’t go on record either.

A poster in the market announces a union meeting; goons filter around wherever truckers gather to push them into attending the meeting. Denny and Skeets figure they can do what they want anyway. Gladys chews out Skeets in front of the guys; it’s sort of played as just nagging, but with a ring of truth when she says “instead of hearts you got motors!”

At Joe’s Garage, Nora pops in to say hi to Denny (he’s especially concerned because she’s pregnant). The goons show up with their union meeting posters. Pop tells them off, he’s slugged, which sets off a general brawl. Out on the road, Denny and Skeets talk about the future. At a diner, he sees Charlie.

The radio mentions a truck wreck. A jerk goon slides in to indirectly scare Denny by asking about his wife’s health. I suspect the guy outside was tampering with his truck. Yep, it’s now got no brakes. Skeets does a good job of avoiding a major wreck, but the truck’s disabled. More victim interviews at the prosecutor’s; that’s is, Denny and Skeets. Denny is sticking to the know-nothing line.

Hugh knows all about the fight at Joe’s, as well as the vandalization of their truck. Denny doesn’t want to be a “stool pigeon.” Still, seeing how Charlie was messed with, Denny says ok, we’ll play along. Some goons are fingered and picked up; that doesn’t prevent another attack on Charlie.

Then Denny’s truck is blown up. The union meeting is boisterous–the so-called is in effect set up as a protection racket (the dues are astronomical). Denny, Pops, and others basically shout down the mugs, and the meeting breaks up. More goon action: they come to threaten Nora. Meanwhile, Skeets, who has gone off on his own by wholesaling tomatoes, is down in the dumps.

Denny looks in; he’s broke, they both are. Later Denny finds out that Nora has gone to the hospital; he plans to send her to the country. Where’s the dough coming from? The goons, of course. Kind of Robin Hood justice. Strangely, the hospital administrator doesn’t want to move her. Well, looks like he’ll come around.

When he comes home, Martin and assorted goons are waiting–actually Martin’s impressed with tough guy Denny. Just like that, they have a deal. He keeps the money, gets a new truck–and joins the goon union. Not only does this tick off the other truckers, but Hugh is more than a bit miffed at Denny’s going turncoat.

Denny figures…what’s the use playing ball when the good guys aren’t around at the right time (the violence hadn’t abated, Charlie may as well be dead). He goes back to the “everyman for himself” mantra; basically meaning not that he’s neutral, but that anything goes. Seems like the honest truckers need a new spokesperson.

In court, the prosecutor tells the judge that it’s impossible to convict the racketeers; they need to cite the witnesses/victims for contempt if they don’t talk. That just means that the goons go about the busting up the guys who won’t play ball with them. A no-win situation, the victims talk and get nailed, or get nailed anyway (by having their produce destroyed).

“Poison Food Perils City!” Run the headlines now. Meanwhile, since a blizzard has ruined the rest of the crop, Skeets’s about the only one with good stuff. But then the goons show up–he’s ruined too. In a police line-up, Pop is willing to point out some hoods.

Somewhere upstate, Denny looks in on Nora. Hey, there’s a baby! Ok, back to goon city–that is, Pops is pushed in front of a speeding subway train. Back at police HQ, Gladys talks to Allison, despite Skeets’s protests. Nora talks to Denny–he wants to turn over a new leaf–but Nora tells him off. She’s right. He just goes any way the wind blows.

Well, he’s arrested as a sort of accessory to Pop’s death (he’s refused to incriminate Martin’s boys, of course). Even Martin can’t spring any of the guys. But he’s got a cunning hand to play–since he controls the truckers, he calls a strike. Instant food shortage. Skeets accurately tells the wholesalers that the truckers hold the key to the problem.

He takes to the stump to try and convince the drivers to get the trucks moving. “You can bust those guerillas wide open with their own hands.” The cops let Denny go, presumably so he can help Skeets. Martin, looking on, gives orders to stop the trucks. In the ensuing melee, Skeets is shot dead.

Just then Denny arrives: the trucks start rolling. One plows into Martin’s office building. The denouement is a Martin v. Denny fistfight; Denny wins, the cops take Martin away. There’s an anti-climactic court scene, with the requisite speech from the judge. Last thing is a cutesy Nora and Denny kiss. All’s well, the end.

Well, I was disappointed. It is based on true events, which explains the rather heavy-handed sermonizing. That’s not such a big deal. The main problems were that the pacing let the air out of the plot early on. A very talky movie, when I was expecting just the opposite. The best couple of scenes involve Denny looting the crooked union, and Martin looking the other way in return for Denny’s ‘loyalty.’ That’s tough-guy respect.

Admittedly, trucking per se isn’t the topic as much as racketeering in general. Nonetheless, there really wasn’t much interaction between the truckers and the wholesalers, even though one couldn’t profitably exist without the other, except locally. The effect was to take the focus away from the hands-on action.

I’m reminded of a similar movie from the same era (also staring Bogart) that was set in California. It was much more effective, as it showed the wholesalers and truckers battle with the mobsters and their goons. No preaching or politics, just decent guys intimidated until they square accounts with the mob.

Bogart gave the best performance here by far, followed by Dickson and O’Shea’s. Neither Brent nor Jenkins really showed much personality; in particular, Brent is rather wooden. It’s not his fault that the script crosses him up him what we might call an aggressively passive role, but he just comes off as angry.

Singleton is even worse in that she overacts her role. As mentioned, she’s cast as a sort of stereotypical ditzy woman; making her eventual tell-all to the cops seem less than believable. Dickson does a much better job–to the extent that we wonder what such a decent person is doing with the likes of the weak guy Brent portrays. Her pregnancy is strictly a device to elicit sympathy for her, and exert a sort of guilty tug on Denny. Had she been more than a decorative asset of Denny’s , this aspect of the plot would’ve fit in better.

This is certainly watchable, but seems overly long for its 71 minutes. 6/10.