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Just as Sydney Greenstreet is unforgettable in "The Maltese Falcon",
Van Heflin's role in Johnny Eager is memorable. Heflin won an Academy
Award for this role that would be a dream role for any serious actor.
The role provides superb lines, wide emotional range and an unusual
character for a Forties movie. A weeping Heflin would be arresting to
even a casual viewer. Several years later, Heflin played a somewhat
similar but rugged and drunk Musketeer with a broken marriage in "The
Three Musketeers." The casting of "Johnny Eager" is the secret to its
Robert Taylor made a name as the good looking good guy in the movies, but he is even better when he plays the bad guy in a handful of films. This is one such example. The strength of this role is his ability to transform from a likable good guy into a steely, gangster with an eye-brow movement and a subtle variation in his voice. Yet amongst the several negative roles ("Conspirator", "Undercurrent", "Ride, Vaqeuro", "The Night Walker"), Taylor in "Johnny Eager" is able to present the versatile actor he was.
The lovely Lana Turner is overshadowed by Taylor and Heflin, not just by the script but their individual performances. Usually Turner overshadows her male colleagues.
The film would never have stood out but for the script (Grant and Mahin) and the direction (LeRoy). The opening sequence and the ending sequence are well crafted and can stand alongside the best of film noir. I am surprised that this work gets often overlooked in discussions about the best examples of the genre. I found the film richly entertaining and well-made.
"Johnny Eager" was the one and only movie film god and goddess Robert
and Lana Turner made together, which is very puzzling--their single
raked in the dough at the box office, and the fact that they were both
long-term contract to the same studio, MGM, made it such that no pesky and
expensive loan-outs from other studios would be necessary (in fact, Taylor
has the distinction of being MGM's longest contract star, with Turner not
far behind) . But however lamentable that is, much consolation can be
garnered from the fact that their lone film is a very memorable and
excellent one, with a solid storyline, good direction, great casting and
flawless performances by all. In a marvelously inspired decision, Robert
Taylor was cast in the title role as Johnny Eager, Gangster--quite a
departure, to say the least, from his previously romantic matinee idol
which established him as a star. At first glance the perfectly handsome,
gentlemanly Taylor would seem woefully miscast, but proves otherwise--he
holds his perfect features with such an air of menace and calculation and
acts every inch the tough guy, both of which are completely convincing.
never gets the sense that he is "trying" to be a heavy, he simply is. In
fact, "Johnny Eager" would be the start of a new phase in Taylor's career
where, like actors such as Dick Powell and fellow MGM star Robert
Montgomery, he would cut loose from his light, "nice guy" leading man
and emerge with a much darker, harder-edged "flawed hero" if not "bad man"
persona. In this film he does so terrifically as the cynical, selfish,
time recently parolled hood who's only priorities are money and avoiding a
return to the big house. He faces problems with each when he is unable to
get a license from any judge to open up his greyhound racing racket, and
when the daughter of the prosecutor who sent him away falls for him. But
the cunning and ruthless Johnny Eager sees how he can use the girl and her
father to meet his own ends and cleverly concocts a devious, heartless
scheme to do so--but things don't turn out as expected when the unexpected
happens and he genuinely falls for her.
And how could any man not? Lana Turner plays the part of the prosecutor-judge's daughter, sociology student Lisbeth Bard, who has the power to make any bad man rue his rotten ways--she is captivating with her luscious, luxe blond beauty (which in her physical prime was such that she often is considered by "critics," whoever they may be, as one of cinema's greatest beauties, and justifiably so. In fact, in the relatively recent "Femme Fatale," Rebecca Romijn-Stamos was made up to look like Lana) and warm sensuality blended with a slightly cool sultriness. She simply shimmers and sparkles, glitters and gleams like a white diamond. Her rapport and sexual chemistry with Taylor is so palpable and electrifying that I consider him one of her best leading men, alongiside only John Garfield in "The Postman Always Rings Twice". In fact, during filming the two had an affair and their powerful attraction translates onto film. Though Turner was, with good reason, known more for her riveting looks, glamorous sex appeal and strong screen presence rather than her acting ability, in this film she turns in a truly depthful, sincere, multi-faceted performance, running the gamut from cool, assessing fascination to frantic, desperate angst, which probably had a lot to do with the fact that she was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, her trusted mentor back from her starlet days at Warner Bros., who "brought" her with him when he moved over to MGM. The dynamic Edward Arnold is good as usual as Lisbeth's lawyer father, who is alternately sinister and sympathetic because of his willingness to do anything to protect his beloved daughter, whether it be from Johnny Eager or from jail time, even if it means forsaking his honesty and breaking the law which he has promised to uphold. Despite the sterling performances of these actors, it is Van Heflin who steals the show (and won the AA for Best Supporting Actor) in his star turn as Johnny's best and only friend Jeff Hartnett, and a strange one at that--a maudlin, conscious-ridden, cerebral alcoholic, the type who seems like he would be the last person fit for the criminal world. But despite this, he sticks with Johnny, and the viewer (or at least I did) truly gets the sense that there is a homoerotic bond, at least on Heflin's part.
This is good stuff and I highly recommend it. If you are into film noirs, then this is a must see.
p.s. Someone flippantly dismissed Turner as a sort of 2nd rate Veronica Lake--that is definitely not true, for it can be argued that Turner became a star around or even before Lake did and despite their sultry, stunning blond looks and charisma, the two had distinct personas of their own and were not "interchangeable." Although one could never go so far as to say Lake was mysterious, she was somewhat inscrutable and "cool-er", something Turner was not. And while Lake definitely did have sufficient star quality, Lana had much more of it, and what's more, she also had a strong audience rapport--something that enabled her to remain a star even when her looks started to fade and despite the shock over the Stompanato Scandal. Lake was a star mostly on the basis of her hairdo, and when it went out of vogue or she changed it, interest in her waned. I say this as a fan of both of these marvelous ladies.
Robert Taylor doesn't ace every scene but he gives a more than credible
performance as Johnny Eager, an inventive pragmatic and violent when
called for gangster trying to open a legit dog track from behind the
scenes. In order to avoid being a parole violator Eager pretends to
drive a cab while he masterminds the track deal paying off cops and
officials to smooth things. Some officials can't be bought however and
a judge (Edward Arnold) with a deep seeded resentment of Eager whom he
refers to as "Thief" and humiliates blocks his license. The coldly
practical Eager circumvents the problem by compromising the judge's
daughter (Lana Turner) but loses his balance on the tightrope he's
walking when he falls hard for her dame.
Eager has a crisper look than most noirs and director Mervyn LeRoy deftly handles the storyline and avoids run of the mill by injecting minor but telling incidentals that indicate Johnny's slow transformation. Suspense scenes are well edited and mise en scene is busy and filled with pertinent detail.
While Bogart might seem an apt choice to play Eager I doubt he could have played it with the same nervous authoritative energy or insecurity Taylor does here. Most of all he lacks Taylor's good looks which are crucial to romancing Lana Turner. The glamorous Ms. Turner is at first a little hard to believe as a student studying social work but she does acquit herself well in some powerfully dramatic scenes with Taylor. Paul Stewart, Glenda Farrell and Edward Arnold chip in fine supporting performances while Van Heflin delivers a magnificent one. Heflin as Eager's alcoholic sidekick and pickled conscience is not only effectively moving but also lends a droll sense of wit to the film with his sardonic observations.
MGM produced this well-written, well-produced gangster saga, a type of
film that was very unusual for the studio.
As the alcoholic, self-loathing, philosophizing buddy of Johnny Eager (Robert Taylor), Heflin steals the show. He plays his role with great intensity and complexity, making his performance one of the most deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscars in the history of the Academy Awards. His crying scenes are enough to choke a person up, and his possible suggestion of a homoerotic attraction to Eager is unique in a film of this era.
It's unfortunate that Heflin's subsequent roles and performances were generally dull. This actor needed roles that put him emotionally on the edge and exploited his intensity. But at least in Johnny Eager, Heflin set a standard for screen acting that remains a role model to this day.
Robert Taylor plays his scenes with Heflin with some dramatic tension and a hint of subtext, while still remaining comfortably within the confines of a handsome Hollywood leading man. Turner delivers her lines very artificially, coming across as insincere, and her face seems incapable of expressing emotion. Beautiful she is, but given the taut script, the director had the potential of eliciting less formulaic playing from her. Luckily, the rest of the cast is excellent -especially Edward Arnold and Robert Sterling.
Watch this one and you won't be disappointed. Heflin's performance is worth it all.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Robert Taylor was to lose his pretty boy image in this film about a sociopath gangster "Johnny Eager." Never before had the audience seen him in such a distasteful role, as such a bad guy that you just wanted to kill him yourself. Johnny meets Lizbeth (Lana Turner)and uses her to blackmail her father, played wonderfully well by Edward Arnold, the District Attorney trying to put Johnny away for good. There is a split second scene when he is going to drive her home, he closes the car door with both hands open on top of the door, as it closes we see his hands seeming to be throwing an imaginary thing away, his distaste for anyone or anything is apparent. No one means much of anything to him and this is the tip-off. A small but affective movement by Taylor. He seduces her, then makes her think she has killed a man, to make Arnold play along with the opening of his Dog Track. Van Heflin plays Johnny's alcoholic friend Jeff, who is constantly trying to make Johnny understand that there is something to be said for helping others and not being so selfish. He is magnificent in his role, and won the Academy Award for his thought to be homosexual overtoned, portrayal. When Johnny is visited by Robert Sterling, Lizbeth's former love, he is stunned to find that Sterling wants to give him money to go away with Lizbeth, because she is so in love with him, and sick over the hidden secret that she holds within. When Eager goes to her, the scene on the balcony between Taylor and Turner is so sexy, so real that you just knew they were really in love outside of the film. A comment was made years ago that there was never a sexier woman than Lana Turner being held in the arms of Robert Taylor, in this scene. In the end Johnny realizes that Lizbeth loves him and that for once in his criminal, selfish life he is really in love. He shows her the so called dead man to cure her hysteria, and then goes out in a hail of bullets, held in the arms of Van Heflin his best, and only friend. This is a great film noir, and I truly believe that Taylor deserved a nomination for this portrayal........See it, you will be a Taylor fan forever.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Having only been familiar with Robert Taylor's body of forgettable work from
the thirties (The Broadway Melodies, Camille, etc), seeing him in the title
role of Johnny Eager was stunning. Tom Hanks's 180 degree turn from silly
comedies to Philadelphia might be a modern day equivalent. Taylor steps
into a role that would seem tailor made for Bogart, Cagney or Robinson, and
does an arguably better job than any of them could have. Yes, Lana Turner
is present, and yes, Van Heflin won a supporting Oscar, but Taylor owns this
Not to say that Turner, Heflin and a few others aren't outstanding, as well. Forget about Turner's sex appeal, which is overrated anyway. She's was a poor woman's Veronica Lake. Her performance here is heartfelt without going over the top, and surprisingly deep for what is a relatively small role. Heflin deservingly won his Oscar, undoubtedly clinching it with the remarkable discharge of fluid from his eyes. That's something you don't see too often, even today. The character of Courteney (Robert Sterling) is expected to provide a few groans in a film like this, but was played very well. A good girl who falls for a bad man always has to have a good man waiting in the wings to "bring her back" when the bad guy drops her. Edward Arnold and the rest of the law were terrific, as well.
I don't really understand why others refer to Johnny Eager as a film noir. It may have an element or two of noir to a degree, but it's really just a gangster film. A late entry, perhaps, to a genre that was on it's way out, but not noir. Neither the characters nor their actions are dark enough. Hell, all the characters in this film are likeable. How can it be noir? Most gangster pictures, including the good ones and the REALLY good ones, usually relied on a pretty elementary plot involving deceit and revenge, with a pretty girl thrown in. The good and really good ones had great and memorable performances (Cagney in White Heat, Robinson in Key Largo, Bogart in Bullets or Ballots, eg), which made them great. Eager has the great performances as well a script that transcends just about every other gangster film I've ever seen. The script has as much characterization for a number of characters as the great dramas. The dialogue, while somewhat dated, is quick, sharp and often funny. Heflin, in particular, was never at a loss for something thoughtful to say. And the plot is unusually complex, with a number of twists, turns and characters.
Of course, you knew that, this being the 40's, that Taylor was not going to live happily ever after, no matter how much you liked him. Of course he's not going to. A criminal in that day and age of motion pictures almost NEVER gets away. So how was he going to go out? That was my question as the end drew near. Was this going to be just another gangster going out in a hail of bullets, with one last thing to say with his last gasp of air? I had a feeling that the writers weren't going to let me down, since they had done such an incredible job so far. It just goes to show that a characteristic of a great movie is that no detail is unimportant. No piece of information or character that seems insignificant early on will ultimately prove to be so. The brief mention of the beat cop early in the film, followed by a tearful plea from his wife in the middle and finally that same beat cop ultimately gunning Johnny down serve as a beautiful ribbon to tie around a perfectly wrapped gift.
Johnny Eager is one of the best films of the 40s, as well as one of the all time greats.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
First, the few bad points:
1) Paul Stewart's accent I think he picked it up when it rolled out of a
gumball machine. He's a fine actor, and his character (Julio) was
interesting, but only half of his dialog is decipherable. If anything,
even worse than his accent in Citizen Kane, and that's saying
2) I normally don't mind character-tinged period lingo, but this film has
way too much of it. Don't even try to count all the dames,' doughs,' and
suckers.' After a while, it becomes tiresome.
3) Johnny hardly ever refers to his girlfriends by name; instead repeatedly
calling them `sugar.' How annoying.
That said, there is much to recommend Johnny Eager. It is one of my favorites of all time.
THE LEADS: Robert Taylor (Johnny Eager), although slightly too young to play this big-boss gangster character, gives a convincing performance, making a great sociopath. He manages to turn that perfect face into a menacing sneer, staring both friends and enemies alike down with a furrowed brow and an icy, cold-blooded glare in his eyes. It is easy to dislike his character, which is rare for Taylor. I have heard that he pushed for the role in order to break out of his pretty-boy mold and expand his range, and Eager is the perfect vehicle for this. I just which he didn't have that silly moustache! GAH!
Van Heflin deserved his best supporting actor Oscar for his role in this film (a rare win for a pathetic character). He plays Jeff Hartnett, the very complex best friend of Johnny -- a self-loathing, alcoholic homosexual -- in an abusive, co-dependent relationship with Johnny. Heflin is the best male crier I've seen in filmdom (see also The Three Musketeers ('48), Madame Bovary ('49), 3:10 to Yuma). He excels in conveying sympathy for his characters and their various plights. Here, as Jeff, his expressive eyes alone speak volumes, as well as do his many philosophical, psychological speeches. (Still, some of his dialog is bizarre, to say the least.) An outstanding performance.
Lana Turner, as Lizabeth Bard, Taylor's love interest, gives a wonderful performance as well. Her character runs the full gamut of emotions, all of which she handles beautifully. (She and Taylor made a great pair -- the posters screamed T-N-T. Unfortunately, they were never paired again.) Her
beauty is so striking, that whenever she is onscreen with others, you find yourself drawn to her. It is a very mature acting job for the tender age of 21.
The homosexual element in the film is extraordinary for 1941. I think the Production Code people must have been on autopilot when they read the script. If this didn't tip them off, then you'd think the finished product would. (SPOILER) The scene where Taylor cradles the dog's head in his hands after fighting with Heflin is mirrored at the end of the film with the two actors, and that's the least of it! (I won't give any more away.) Hello? How it passed, I will never know, but it makes the characters, even that of Johnny, so humane and multi-dimensional. Very impressive, and well ahead of its time.
SUPPORTING PLAYERS: Edward Arnold: Ever dependable, again he does not disappoint. As Turner's step-dad, Arnold, too, expresses a wide range of emotions with ease and total believability as the law-enforcement element of the story. His conflict over Turner's lifestyle is portrayed fabulously. One of my favorite character actors ever! Robert Sheridan: Great as the noble and selfless Jimmy Courtney, Turner's `other man.' I wish his film career would have gone further. Glenda Farrell: Lovely, but wasted in a very small role. Patricia Dane: Her character is unsympathetic, but she manages to inject a high level of humanity into it, evoking concern nonetheless. Barry Nelson: in his very early twenties, and already a decent villain. Paul Stewart: (see above)
Special Mention goes to Gypsy Prince, the retired greyhound dog with such a sweet face, endlessly chasing the squeaky toy!
DO NOT MISS THIS FILM!
Johnny Eager is an ex-gangster parolee who needs to hide his current
criminal activities. He's a classy gangster and always knows how to get
what he wants. He runs a dog racing racket and has henchmen to do his
dirty work. He seems to have everything figured out until he meets a
girl who figures him out but still falls in love with him. A guy like
Johnny Eager can't have a respectable dame like her falling all over
him, right? Johnny Eager doesn't fall in *love*.
Robert Taylor stars in the title role and is very good as the classy criminal. The lovely Lana Turner plays the love interest Liz Bard. This was still relatively early in Turner's career. She'd feature in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941) the same year, but make more of an impression later on in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946). Turner's character is a key component of JOHNNY EAGER, but she spends considerable time offscreen.
Van Heflin won the Oscar for playing Jeff Hartnett, a well-read alcoholic and Johnny's best friend and confidant. He's not interested in the criminal activities, but he keeps Johnny company, offers him advice, and keeps his secrets. A selfish crook like Johnny Eager knows nothing about love or sympathy, but even Johnny Eager needs a friend.
Heflin would go on to such movies as SHANE (1953) and 3:10 TO YUMA (1957) in the 1950s, but he actually won an Academy Award for this film early on in his career. Heflin's performance was my favorite part of the movie and he deserved Oscar recognition. He really stood out among the ensemble. His character is always half-drunk, but functional, honest and prone to colorful literary quotations. The performance is subtle and nuanced compared to the rest of the cast. Heflin is able to convey different emotions throughout the movie and even takes a punch, falls to the ground, rolls around, looks up, and leaves, all in (if I recall correctly) one shot.
(Other viewers have pointed out undertones with Heflin's character that are there if you want to take 'em or leave 'em. The film works fine either way.)
A big-time racketeer who uses people for his own advantage, Johnny doesn't understand love and has no real friends except Jeff. He'd never even had a pet dog growing up. Johnny Eager is like an emotionless robot, until Liz comes along. In the end it is Johnny's newfound shred of humanity that ultimately leads to his downfall. (I guess. The ending never made 100% sense to me.)
JOHNNY EAGER is an enjoyable little film from 1941. Part gangster movie, part film noir lite. I really don't know how best to classify this one. But it has somehow fallen out of the public consciousness, available only by on-demand DVD from Warner Archive and occasionally on TCM. It's hard to understand why, since it's a decent enough movie with two notable stars, Robert Taylor and Lana Turner. And it's an OSCAR_WINNER! One would think people would be interested in seeing the film that provided the Best Supporting Actor of 1941, Van Heflin's shining moment.
I caught this on TCM recently and I'd recommend checking it out if you have the time. It's not essential viewing, but it's worth a look. Catch it when you can.
The celebrated German philosopher Immanual Kant's premise of theory was
that there is no originality, because we are influenced by what we
experience. In that case Johnny Eager (1942)is a clichéd gangster film.
But the clichéd roles give way to nuanced characters, which have
originality within their various slants of their respective
stereotypes. Director Leroy achieves this by adding to the clichés of
sharp suited mobsters and their dolls anomalies as in the emotional,
erudite gangster with ethics.
A classic stereotype, (well observed and researched by the production team) is that of Lana Turner's character; Lizbeth Bard. She is the clichéd sociology student. That is she is a middle class naive ingénue, whose fascination with her subject matter gets her in too deep. This role gave Turner credibility as an actor! Likewise, the film gave Taylor the credibility he deserved as an actor of dimensions. His caricature of the solipsistic gangster gave him an edge which usurped his 'pretty boy' image. Nevertheless Taylor's Johnny Eager seems to have a sense of his beauty that has the women running to him. One example is the scene when the women run to serve him at the desk near the start of the film. This begs the question of was Johnny Eager's looks that had the women eating out of his hand? or was it his 'gangster' image that attracted them? Could Eager have had the women falling for him with just looks alone? His character wouldn't be half as sexy in the role of Bard's other love interest, that of the sweet, well intentioned good -guy as in Robert Sterling's character; Jimmy Courtney.
The other stand out performance (deserved of his Oscar) is that of Van Heflin playing the complex ,sesquipedalian and polymath, Jeff Hartnett. He is the cerebral side kick of Eager. Like the women, he has got in too deep with Eager because of his homo erotic attraction to the latter.
Mention should also go to the excellent turns by Edward Arnald as the over protective Dad, who has come from nothing,making it as a respectable lawyer, with ambitions for his daughter to marry a wealthy socialite with a good name. His over protectiveness as Bard's Dad gives way to a subtext of incest. This has Hartnett (Heflin) mention the famous psychologist Freud.
Also outstanding in this film is the clever script, which is evidently well researched, as in the example of the naive sociology student. The direction of the film is a credit to Mervyn LeRoy who portrays the clichéd caricatures of the characters to almost perfection. . The film takes allot of twists and turns, which defines it as 'film noir'.
This was the film that altered the career of Robert Taylor, transforming him from a 'pretty boy' film star to a credible actor. It definitely is worth seeing.
Robert Taylor is a reformed gangster on parole at the beginning of
"Johnny Eager." After meeting with his parole officer and two sociology
students - one of whom is the gorgeous Lana Turner - Johnny transforms
himself into the gangster he has remained. It's in this identity that
he runs into Turner again at a nightclub. The gangster interests her
more than the cabbie. Little does he know, her father is the prosecutor
who has an injunction to keep a dog track from opening in which Johnny
has a financial stake.
According to Lana Turner, she and Taylor flirted and made out, and Taylor told Stanwyck he wanted a divorce. Turner didn't want to break up the marriage and told Taylor it was no go. Stanwyck, however, never spoke to Turner again. Turner and Taylor make a beautiful couple and they sizzle on screen.
Both turn in excellent performances. Turner plays a love-struck, vulnerable young woman who will do anything to protect her man - she's great. Taylor, sporting a mustache, is terrific as Johnny - a goody two shoes around his parole officer, a mean, selfish tough guy around everyone else. He has no idea how to love or to be loved.
Van Heflin won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as Johnny's friend Jeff, an alcoholic philosopher and Johnny's conscience. Heflin plays up the sensitivity of Jeff and his love for Johnny, giving the role gay overtones. He is fantastic.
If you're under the impression that Taylor and Turner were just two of Hollywood's non-acting pretty people, think again. During their careers, both played many worthwhile roles and played them well. If the critics dismissed them because of their looks, or in Turner's case, the headlines she garnered in her private life, too bad, but the audience always got their money's worth with these two pros.
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