Johnny Eager (1941)

Johnny Eager (1941) is a delightful and fast-moving early period classic film noir, starring Robert Taylor and Lana Turner as two compromised and heartless individuals working against their better natures as they slide fatefully into separate dooms.

Directed by Mervin LeRoy and also starring Van Heflin and Paul Stewart, Johnny Eager is a cynical entertainment showing criminal hubris as only the gangster films of the era can.

Lana Turner plays her role almost without anyone appreciating her full star power, and she is certainly no femme fatale, but rather a femme who is fated, almost lost between two worlds, represented by the gangster she falls in with in the form of Johnny Eager —  and her stepfather, who is the District Attorney who imprisoned him.

Moreover, Lana Turner as Lisbeth is another of Mervyn LeRoy's upper class characters, who want to get a new life among ordinary people. However, here in Johnny Eager this desire unfolds in a most tragic manner, as she ends up among gangsters, and not ordinary honest people. This is purest tragedy, and not the norm for a period gangster film, and instead of delivering a wicked femme fatale, it delivers a fateful accident and a twist that she will find it hard to recover from.

New friends — Lana Turner and Robert Taylor in Johnny Eager (1941)

Johnny Eager kicks off with a great set up. The eponymous hero is a parolee who is living a double life —  he pretends to be a cab driver, in order to fool the gullible parole board —  while in fact he is a gangster running a gambling syndicate, and a major league dog track too by the looks of it.

Old friends — Van Heflin and Robert Taylor in Johnny Eager (1941)

Van Heflin in Johnny Eager (1941)

This can't last for long, and yet Johnny seems to be getting well away with it. Switching when needed from his taxi diver's cap to his spiv-style fitted gangster suits, it's a great set up. The tale itself is one of claustrophobic twists as Lisbeth (Lana Turner) is oblivious to the fact that Johnny Eager is living a double life and is involved in an operation to reopen the local dog track, which her father has threatened with closure. 

Lana Turner

Johnny Eager (1941) is a movie with a view on the past but both feet in the future. During the early 1940s, the United States went through positive social changes which are reflected in film noir, which presents a more complex and pessimistic view of crime than the nostalgic gangster pictures of the 1930s. Johnny himself is incredibly unsympathetic, and not quite the sociopath or psychopath who is deserving of understanding. Instead, he seems to be a plain old misogynist and criminal, driven by greed and perhaps a narcissism born of being so very good looking. 

Lana Turner and Robert Taylor and Lana Turner in Johnny Eager (1941)

Johnny Eager‘s director Mervyn LeRoy had filmed several exceptional crime dramas already, including Little Caesar (1930), Five Star Final (1931), Three on a Match (1932) and  Hard to Handle (1933), some of the greatest gangster and crime pictures of the pre-Code days.  Here however is something more mature in some senses, insofar as the redemption of the characters is definitely to the fore.

Things get wild for Johnny and Lisbeth (Lana Turner) when Johnny stages a murder, with his pal Julio, played by Paul Stewart. This staged killing, which is enacted to further Johnny's business aims, causes a severe and antic disposition in the mind of poor Lisbeth, whom as an innocent is not cut out for this level of criminality.

Paul Stewart in Johnny Eager (1941)

Johnny Eager is without doubt a man who has no conscience. When childhood friend Lew Rankin (Barry Nelson) gets fed up with his subordinate role in the gang and starts plotting against him, Johnny murders him without the slightest qualm. 

Johnny also lies to his devoted girlfriend Garnet (Patricia Dane) to get her to go to Florida while he romances Liz, played by Lana Turner — while Mae (Glenda Farrell), a prior girlfriend, asks him to help get her incorruptible policeman husband transferred back to his old precinct, Johnny not only lies, and argues that he no longer has any influence, he also hides the fact that he got the man transferred in the first place because he would not be corrupted. 

Glenda Farrell in Johnny Eager (1941)

When Jimmy Courtney (Robert Sterling), Liz's high society former boyfriend, becomes alarmed because Liz is going to pieces due to a guilty conscience, he offers Johnny all his money to leave the country and take Liz with him. 

On hearing this, Johnny cannot figure out his "angle", and wonders why he would do such a selfless thing. In this sense he is the typical noir mobster, who is a person that underneath has no sense of kindness, because he operates in a world where everything is done without morality and for one's own personal gain.

Strangest of all, the only soft spot Johnny Eager seems to have is for his intellectual and alcoholic friend Jeff (Van Heflin), although even he is not sure why. Jeff has an insight, telling his boss that "even Johnny Eager has to have one friend." But it is a peculiar relationship, as Jeff remains hopelessly drunk throughout the film — a portrayal that won Van Heflin a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Van Heflin's character Jeff is not the only one moreover, who is making intellectual quotations throughout.

“If this were serious drama one might complain that what makes Johnny [Eager] tick remains a mystery, that lovely students of sociology aren’t apt to embark on discussion with a parolee on Cyrano de Bergerac’s apostrophe to a kiss. But as pure melodrama Johnny Eager moves at a turbulent tempo. Mr. Taylor and Miss Turner strike sparks in their distraught love affair. Van Heflin provides a sardonic portrait of Johnny’s Boswell, full of long words and fancy quotations.”

–  Theodore Strauss, New York Times (1942)

There may of course be homosexual overtones here in Van Heflin's Jeff, as is common with the gangster type. Often their love of violence and violence alone as an antisocial attitude, is heightened with the suggestion of a queer relationship, which it seems Jeff (Van Heflin) may be providing. Something, although we do not know what, causes this character to drink constantly, and provide nothing but sardonic advice.

Van Heflin in Johnny Eager (1941)

Perhaps the overall effect is heightened by the fact that Robert Taylor and Lana Turner are somewhat playing against type. Taylor is on this rare occasion the bad guy, although as Johnny Eager he is still very much desired by every woman that he meets. And Lana Turner is the innocent, and not the seasoned tramp and calculating femme fatale that Hollywood would make her. 

The motif of misogyny is strong in Johnny Eager, and Johnny is presented typically and in Golden Age fashion as a man most attractive to women, from the off. Women are not only attracted to him in droves, but they repel him too, as is best seen in his dismissive behaviour towards his girlfriend.

Robert Taylor and Paul Stewart in Johnny Eager (1941)

Lisbeth (Lana Turner), who is tortured by guilt over her shooting of Julio (Paul Stewart) finally appears on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The movement which follows is crucial to the development of the film noir style, as Johnny Eager realises then what she is prepared to sacrifice because she loves him. It's then that something changes and he confesses to her that the murder was a fake, although she does not believe him and thinks he's just trying to make her feel better. It's here that Johnny Eager changes, and moves cinematic criminality into the 1940s, by setting out to prove to her that Julio is still alive. 

The achievement of the best film noirs of this era is that they are both cynical and sentimental, and it may be the case that we want to see Johnny redeemed, and this can happen in film noir —  although only usually through a violent death.

Dramatic street shoot-out at the conclusion of Johnny Eager (1941)

That's certainly produced in great style at the close of Johnny Eager, in a pretty exciting street shoot out scene. Sure, Johnny is doomed —  he is mean from woman to woman, who approach him from scene to scene, only to be rebuffed and rebuked, and sent away and ignored.

One of the best of these encounters is between Johnny and his ex-girlfriend Mae (played by Glenda Farrell). “You don’t even know what I’m talking about”, says Mae as Johnny leaves her for the last time, after he cruelly needles her about their time together. Better still, and in a fairly subtle move, Mae's scene will truthfully manifest its own poetic justice at the last minute of the film, in the form of her husband, who is the cop that phone's in and reports Johnny Eager's death.

Johnny Eager (1941) on Wikipedia

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