Ruthless hood Johnny Eager is pretending to his parole officer that he has chucked the rackets and is now a full-time taxi driver. In fact he\'s as deep in as he ever was, and desperately needs official permission to open his new dog track. When he meets up with Lisbeth Bard he finds he not only has a stunning new girlfriend but a possible way to get his permit.
Robert Taylor ... John \'Johnny\' Eager
Lana Turner ... Lisbeth \'Liz\' Bard
Edward Arnold ... John Benson Farrell
Van Heflin ... Jeff Hartnett
Robert Sterling ... Jimmy Courtney
Patricia Dane ... Garnet
Glenda Farrell ... Mae Blythe Agridowski
Henry O\'Neill ... A.J. Verne
Diana Lewis ... Judy Sanford
Barry Nelson ... Lew Rankin
Charles Dingle ... A. Frazier Marco
Paul Stewart ... Julio
Cy Kendall ... Bill Halligan
Don Costello ... Billiken
\"Johnny Eager\" was the one and only movie film god and goddess Robert Taylor and Lana Turner made together, which is very puzzling--their single pairing raked in the dough at the box office, and the fact that they were both under 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 roles 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. One 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 roles 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, big 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.
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.
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, it\'s even worse than his accent in Citizen Kane, and that\'s saying something! 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!
* In one of the bedrooms in Johnny\'s apartment at the track is a large painting, done in the art deco style, of a reclining blonde woman. Coincidentally, this same painting is featured briefly but prominently in Eyes in the Night (1942), released the same year and also starring Edward Arnold, referred to in that film by Marty as \"a blonde tomato.\"