|Dec 9 2022
Taylor and Turner make an explosive pairing in hit gangster romance.
MGM produced a beautiful poster for its 1941 melodrama Johnny Eager, which you see here in all its vibrancy and clever design. Starring Robert Taylor and Lana Turner, the unknown creator or creators used the stars' names crossword style to include “TNT” into the text. MGM knew they had something special on their hands in Turner and had been trundling her out for audiences to goggle at in awe and wonder, building up her career in comedy, musicals, straight drama, a western, and even horror in 1941's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Now at age twenty it was time for her to co-anchor a crime melodrama.
Turner is a sociology student who crosses the path of an ex-con named John Eager (Taylor) at his parole office. Turner is smitten, as well as impressed with Taylor's efforts to stay on the straight and narrow by working as a cab driver. The problem is Taylor is actually running an elaborate scam, heading a criminal enterprise in the form of a profitable gambling racket while keeping his parole officer bamboozled, and others either paid off or bedazzled into silence. Such is his charm that even the head secretary at the parole office is helping him.
Turner, as an innocent young student who isn't in on the scam, of course throws a wrench in Taylor's plans by finding out he's lying. But it turns out she's a little more worldly than she at first seemed. When she learns Taylor is still an underworld goon she's fine with it. She's just gotta have the guy. It means jilting her square boyfriend and disappointing her protective dad, plus she's warned that disaster will result, but the heart wants what it wants. Will she be corrupted? Will Taylor become so loopy that he loses control of his empire? Can true love blossom in the barren soil of the organized crime underground?
In the end Johnny Eager is a smart, well-written movie, with memorable lines aplenty and several refreshing plot surprises. Burgeoning superstar Turner does just fine in her key role, and it helps that her surrounding cast are all confident and talented. Van Heflin even won a supporting actor Academy Award for his role as a poetry spouting, alcoholic sidekick to Taylor's smooth gangster, and the accolade was well deserved. Johnny Eager is a movie every vintage film buff should add to their queue. It premiered today in 1941.
Academy AwardJohnny EagerRobert TaylorLana TurnerEdward ArnoldPatricia DaneDiana LewisVan Heflinposter artcinemamovie review
|May 23 2021
Social critique lurks in the dark corners of Evelyn Keyes film noir.
This unusual poster was made for the film noir The Prowler, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1951 starring Evelyn Keyes and cinephile fave Van Heflin. When a woman reports a prowler one of the cops that responds to the call becomes infatuated with her and decides to make her his own, despite the fact that she's married. The process of claiming her involves him forcing himself upon her, but this being a mid-century drama, after the fade to black we fast forward a few weeks and the two are now having an affair.
This is the set-up of the film, not its story arc, so we haven't given anything anyway in terms of major plot points, however we wanted to mention the preamble because it's uncomfortable viewing—though we should note that the film doesn't present this behavior as normal. It also seems clear that Heflin is able to pull this off specifically because a fizzled Hollywood career has made Keyes' character vulnerable, and she's unhappy in a marriage that she agreed to for reasons of security. So if you watch the film don't get your hackles up. In order to condemn behavior it's useful to show it, and that's what Heflin's manipulations are all about.
But there's more going on here than just a noir drama about a bad man and a targeted woman. The movie was written largely, if not wholly, by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, and he always has a deeper message. Here's a notable line of dialogue concerning bad police officers: “It depends on what you think a cop's job really is. I figure that the job of a cop is to protect lives. Now some of these trigger happy guys, they think they have to protect things.”
Hmm. Relevant to today? Quite possibly.
Often you can identify a film noir by the simple fact that the lead male is screwed, and gets progressively more screwed as the movie unfolds. The Prowler reverses the formula and places Keyes in the screwed role and makes Heflin a sort of homme fatale, a sociopathic manipulator determined to get what he wants no matter the cost. What he wants is Keyes, and he'll destroy her marriage, her self respect, her mental stability, and any other pillar of her existence to have her. And of course, in so doing, he'll risk losing what humanity he has and descending into soulless desolation.
Evelyn Keyes was a talented performer. We've seen her several times now and she always kills it. Thanks to her and others The Prowler is a well acted movie. It's also beautifully shot. It was directed by Joseph Losey—soon to be blacklisted along with Trumbo, so presumably they were on the same page concerning social critique as cinematic subtext. Millions of average Joes made the same gripes as Trumbo and Losey, and millions of average Joes still do today. But when filmmakers weave a narrative tapestry that calls America broadly corrupt, trouble with the empty suits in Washington D.C. always looms.
Here's a parting shot from Trumbo: “So I'm no good. But I'm no worse than anyone else. You work in a store you knock down on the cash register. The big boss, [he cheats on] the income tax. [Politician] sells votes. The lawyer takes bribes. I was a cop. I used a gun.”
Don't criticize America like that! People will think you're a communist.
I have been re-educated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. I am happy. America is perfect.
The ProwlerLos AngelesEvelyn KeyesVan HeflinDalton TrumboJoseph Loseyposter artcinemafilm noirmovie reviewcommunism
|Jan 22 2021
The past is never dead. It's not even past.
Long review short—Act of Violence, which premiered today in 1949 and starred Van Heflin and Robert Ryan, is as solid as film noir gets. You have a comfortable middle class protagonist whose good life will be screwed if he doesn't take drastic action to deal with the repercussions of a past decision. You have characters whose motivations, as they are revealed to the audience, shift those characters' positions on the spectrum of good and evil. You have three female co-stars who each nudge the plot in different directions. And you have top notch film noir stylings brought to life by director Fred Zinnemann and cinematographer Robert Surtees.
The plot involves a terrible event from the war to which Heflin and Ryan are the only surviving witnesses. They're pitted against each other because of this event, and while one hopes to let the past die, the other is driven to force a reckoning. We'll leave the plot description there. Acting-wise, Heflin is good, Ryan is solid as always, and you get to see Janet Leigh near the start of her film career and Mary Astor near the end of hers, legends passing in the noir. We haven't seen Act of Violence ranked among the top films in the genre, but for our money it's up there with some of the best. See it.
Let me feel your neck for a second. Don't worry, I've gotten over your devastating betrayal.
Metro-Goldwyn-MayerAct of ViolenceVan HeflinRobert RyanJanet LeighMary AstorFred ZinnemannRobert Surteesposter artcinemafilm noirmovie review
|May 23 2019
Last stop—the city morgue.
Watching lots of movies eventually brings everything your way. The promo poster for Grand Central Murder lured us, and we found ourselves watching an archetypal Sherlockian whodunnit, complete with the villain unmasked in the final moments. When a Broadway showgirl is murdered on a private train car the police gather a gaggle of suspects and go through each of their stories trying to uncover the killer. Among the detainees—her escaped convict boyfriend, her sad sack ex-husband, her jealous co-worker, her phony psychic stepfather, her theatrical understudy, and others, including the convict's lawyer, played by lead actor Van Heflin. Various alibis and reminiscences are shown in flashback until the killer is revealed via a monologue that wraps everything up nice and neat. We wouldn't call the movie screamingly thrilling and funny like the poster does, but it's okay if you like mysteries, and the mass transit backdrop is actually kind of interesting. Grand Central Murder premiered in New York City today in 1942.