A not so reformed racketeer; a pair of stool pigeons; a good girl turned bad, and a devoted father desperate to spare his daughter a life sentence. What do they all have in common? Mervyn LeRoy’s Johnny Eager (1941) – an irreproachable B-noir given the A-list treatment by MGM. John Lee Mahin and James Edward Grant’s screenplay marked the studio’s spectacular foray into the seedy underwork of gangsters, graft and good old fashion murder for hire; an intoxicating blend where the good and the bad mingle at cross purposes, each tainting the other in unexpected ways. MGM – the most starlit and moneyed of the Hollywood studios took a cue from Warner Bros. (the studio that practically invented the gripping gangster genre) and did them one better with megawatt sweater girl Lana Turner and pretty boy Robert Taylor doing some of the best acting of their respective careers.
It’s hard to imagine MGM, a studio known for its frothy musicals and fun-filled family entertainment pulling off such a dark and sinister tale. But Mervyn LeRoy’s direction is peerless – utilizing all of the studio’s formidable resources to deliver a hard-hitting melodrama that grabs our attention almost from the start and then never lets go. If anything Johnny Eager not only meets our expectations, but surpasses them for a diabolically delicious time.
We’re introduced to the title character, Johnny Eager (Robert Taylor), recently paroled from state prison and driving a taxi as part of his probationary rehabilitation. Johnny checks in with his parole officer, A.J. Verne (Henry O’Neill), a fairly gullible sort whose private secretary, Miss Mines (Leona Maricle) is actually on the take, keeping the truth about Johnny’s reform a secret from her boss while quietly alerting Johnny whenever Verne is about to make one of his ‘random’ checks on his current living conditions.
It just so happens that Verne has decided to pay a call on Johnny’s ‘place of residence’ today; a tiny apartment owned by Peg Fowler (Connie Gilchrist) – who is masquerading as Johnny’s aunt, and her adult daughter, Matty (Robin Raymond) who does a fairly impressive job of faking sweet adolescence. Johnny is introduced to ‘Lisbeth Bard (Lana Turner) – a socialite tagging along with best friend, Judy Sanford (Diana Lewis) who is doing sociological research on criminal behaviour. The rather naïve Judy is slightly intimidated by Johnny, even though he is most congenial and forthright in answering all her prying questions. Though no one else clues in, sparks have already begun to fly between Johnny and Liz. It’s pure animal magnetism.
After Verne’s visit, Johnny hightails it to his real home – a swank suite in back of the snazzy clubhouse facing a dog racetrack that he’s about to open under the name ‘Marco Enterprises’. Actually, A. Frasier Marco (Charles Dingle) is just a silent partner and front man for the operation, along with lowbrow hit men, Benjy (Lou Lubin) and Julio (Paul Stewart), and hoodlum muscle, Lew Rankin (Barry Nelson). Lou’s frustrated with his current lack of prosperity. Moreover, he’s tired of being Johnny’s right hand, despite having grown up on the wrong side of the same tracks. Johnny pretends to sympathize with Lou’s quandary; then quietly tells Marco to put a tail on him to see what he does with his free time.
Johnny suspects that restaurateur Tony Luce (Nestor Paiva) is double-crossing him and bursts into his establishment to collect what he’s owed, only to discover Liz already there. It seems her escort, Floyd Markham (Cliff Danielson) had a tad too much to drink and went home in a taxi, effectively leaving her to pay their dinner bill without any money. Liz promises to say nothing to Verne and Johnny, squares her bill with Tony, then offers to drive her home as gratitude.
In the meantime, Liz’s fiancée, Jimmy Courtney (Rod Sterling) is being chastised by her father, District Attorney John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold) for not keeping a closer watch on his daughter. It’s late and no one has seen Liz since she left Tony’s restaurant hours ago. Unhappy chance both men are home when Liz arrives dewy-eyed and smitten on Johnny’s arm. Jimmy realizes he’s lost Liz to Johnny. But Farrell isn’t about to let the con he sent to prison steal the one thing in his life that matters most. The next day, Johnny is summoned to Farrell’s office where the D.A. makes short shrift of his intentions toward him. If Farrell can’t buy off Johnny then he’s perfectly willing and able to frame him for a crime he didn’t commit, simply to keep the two apart.
Tossing a hundred dollar bill at Johnny, Farrell orders him out of his office. And although it looks as though Johnny will comply with Farrell’s request, very shortly he and Liz become a hot item at all the nightclubs. For Liz, their attachment is predicated on real love. But Johnny doesn’t know what that is. Furthermore, he’s about as unscrupulous and cold towards women as he is about life in general. Johnny’s only friend is Jeff Hartnett (Van Heflin); a drunken wit – the poet laureate of the gangster set and straggler on, who sees life and love more clearly from the bottom of a bottle than Johnny can sober.
Johnny desperately needs to open his dog track in order to stay financially afloat. But Farrell is standing in his way. So Johnny concocts a brutally selfish plan. Realizing how strong Liz’s love is for him, Johnny has Julio break in on their romantic night together with a drawn gun. Johnny and Julio struggle and Johnny – presumably about to lose the fight – shouts for Liz to shoot Julio. She does, not realizing that the gun is loaded with blanks. Julio pretends to die and Johnny suggests that Liz should lie low for the next little while, giving Johnny time to bury the body and come up with an alibi.
Liz returns home shell shocked. For the next week she doesn’t speak to anyone – even her father – and barely eats a thing, becoming a recluse in her bedroom. Farrell sends for Johnny who tells him that Liz killed Julio to save his life. Johnny further informs Farrell that unless he immediately agrees to lift the sanctions against his dog track he’ll go to the press and expose Liz as a cold-blooded murderer. Unable to see his way clear of this blackmail, Farrell reluctantly agrees.
The track is a success, even attracting Verne to the races. Johnny also meets old flame, Maye Blythe Agridowski (Glenda Farrell) an aging gun moll who has since given up the life to marry a dedicated cop, Joe (Byron Shore). But the couple are struggling to make ends meet. Maye hopes that Johnny can help out. Unfortunately, Joe’s badge number is ‘711’. Johnny recognizes it as the officer who arrested him way back when. Although he spares Maye this knowledge, he refuses to help her just the same. Now Johnny turns his attentions to Lou Rankin, whom he discovers is working for rival hood, Bill Halligan (Cy Kendell), who has since wooed Julio away from Johnny’s employ too.
Johnny and Jeff pay a call on Bill’s private poker game. Johnny fakes getting drunk so that he can go lay down in the next room. Actually, he sneaks out the back way and down the fire escape to confront Lou whom he murders by driving his car over a bridge into an oncoming train. Afterward, Johnny returns to the poker game as though nothing has happened, waiting to gauge the other’s reactions after news of Lou’s death reach them.
The next day Jimmy Courtney pays Johnny a call at the race track. He proposes that Johnny get out of town. In fact, Jimmy will even pay for the privilege with his own inheritance. At first Johnny thinks Jimmy a sucker, who wants him out of Liz’s life. Actually, Jimmy wants Johnny to take Liz with him. You see, Jimmy has always loved Liz. He only has her best interests at heart. More recently, he’s become alarmed over Liz’s inability to function. The thought that she could have killed someone has destroyed her.
Johnny decides to tell Liz the truth about Julio. But she doesn’t believe him, and furthermore tells Johnny that once his parole is up and the law can no longer touch him she is going to turn herself in for Julio’s murder. Johnny decides that the only way he can prove to Liz that she’s innocent is to produce Julio in the flesh. So Johnny tells Jimmy to bring Liz to Halligan’s hideaway. But Halligan wisely assesses that once Julio has revealed himself to Liz he’s outlived his usefulness as far as Johnny’s concerned.
Johnny forces Julio at gunpoint to Jimmy’s waiting car. Finally realizing that she hasn’t killed anyone, Liz believes that she and Johnny can live happily ever after. But Johnny – who has finally come to his own understanding as to what true love is all about – knocks Liz out cold. He, dumps her in Jimmy’s backseat and instructs him to take her away. Jimmy agrees and drives off, leaving Johnny to facedown Halligan and Julio in a hailstorm of bullets. A police officer arrives on the scene and mortally wounds Johnny. In the final moments of his life, Johnny is cradled by a remorseful Jeff. In a curious twist of fate, it is revealed that the cop who killed Johnny is Mae’s husband.
Johnny Eager is a fast paced, intricately plotted, exhilarating entertainment. Turner and Taylor are perfectly matched in this midnight story of backstabbing corruption. Edward Arnold is brilliant as the doting father who would sacrifice even his own respectability to protect the daughter he worships. The film is immeasurably blessed with MGM’s usual zeal for posh settings. Cedric Gibbon’s art direction and Edwin Willis’ set decoration give us a sort of Manhattan revised - a societal cross section that runs the gamut from flashy jetsetters to the lower east side without ever leaving the Culver City backlot. Harold Rossen’s cinematography goes more for the glam than the grit. It’s all so impeccably stylish, with a surface sheen that make even underworld betting seem like a night at the opera. Bronislau Kaper’s score is way too melodramatic, but thankfully doesn’t get much playtime in between the opening and closing credits. In the final analysis, Johnny Eager is a classy film about déclassé people.
Warner Home Video’s MOD DVD is hugely disappointing. Frankly, I am sick and tired of a studio as big as WB slapping out lousy VHS quality transfers onto disc, simply to make them available to the public and snag a quick buck. Johnny Eager’s video elements are seriously flawed. For a moment let’s overlook – though not forgive – the age related artefacts that are prevalent throughout and frequently distracting. And let’s set aside the fact that the contrast levels have been artificially bumped up. But isn’t it about time Warner corrected the horrendous video noise that gives us rainbow like strobes of colour washing across these B&W images? And isn’t it high time they eradicated edge enhancement from their DVD mastering practises?
Johnny Eager’s image painfully suffers from both these shortcomings. The visuals also jerk from side to side and up and down as though the original film element sprockets have been misaligned while running through the telecine machine. These are unacceptable oversights. Because Warner isn’t offering us their Archive titles for $2.99 which is about all transfers like this one (because of its packaging) are worth. No, they’re charging upwards of $20.00 on sale (the same as for a professionally minted and properly mastered DVD). In Canada, Archive titles retail for the paltry sum of $34.99. Johnny Eager’s current video quality isn’t even worth the cost of the disc it’s been burned on (probably around four cents). No, Warner has gone the quick and dirty route and fans ought to be outraged over their short-sightedness. It stinks!
The audio is mono as originally recorded and holding its own with minimal hiss and pop. As with other titles in the Archive Collection we only get a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: NOT recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)