Mervyn LeRoy’s Johnny Eager is a sometimes dazzling film noir from 1941. Featuring a screenplay by John Lee Mahin and James Edward Grant, this is an archetypical story of redemption set against the backdrop of organized crime. The cinematography of Harold Rosson touches things up and helps the production transition from glossy drama to cheap grit.
Guilt and love are among the more overt themes of Johnny Eager, with the lure of the dark underworld proving too much for some characters to handle. There is also a sense of innocence lost, especially with respect to the semi-saintly Lana Turner. Unfortunately, the narrative lacks certain spark.
Robert Taylor stars as the titular Johnny Eager, a gangster masquerading as a reformed citizen for the sake of his parole officer (Henry O’Neill). He has the old man fooled, but everyone else on the planet knows that Eager’s back in business and trying to open up a dog racing track. He flirts with danger and plays fast and loose with women, at least until he meets Lisbeth (Turner).
Lisbeth is the stepdaughter of John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold), the prosecutor responsible for throwing Eager in the clink. She’s smitten with the criminal and nothing her stepdaddy can do deters her rabid affections. Eager is only too happy to oblige, despite the subtle urgings of his pal Jeff (Van Heflin). When a plan goes awry, the gangster is faced with a new reality.
Turner plays things well as a young woman captivated by crime. She’s a sociology student with a propensity to flirt with danger. Her face lights up when she suggests that Eager seems like the type of man who might beat his woman if she did him wrong. Peril turns her on.
Eager is the perfect foil for Lisbeth’s inexperience and he’s more than happy to entertain her sassy fantasies, especially when he learns about Farrell. She also has an ex-boyfriend, the high society Jimmy (Robert Sterling), who is full of the kind of starchy concern that drives young women to the dark side. Eager taunts both men with his blonde acquisition.
These moments of ethereal psychological interplay account for the best moments of Johnny Eager, as the audience learns just how immoral the titular character is. Taylor plays it smooth; he’s undeterred and has no qualms when it comes to sending the lovely Garnet (Patricia Dane) to Florida to cool her jets. He never had a dog as a kid, but he doesn’t mind racing them.
But then there’s Jeff, the alcoholic scruples. Troubled by an everlasting guilty conscience, Heflin’s character is fascinating. The actor won the Oscar for his portrayal and he is magnetic in his exploration of concerted pathos and obvious pain. His drinking is suicidal, yet he remains on the edge of Eager’s life because everybody deserves a friend.
One of the film’s most effective moments comes when Johnny is making excuses for his loose dealings with Lisbeth and glibly claims that “we’ve gotta live.” Jeff, full of liquor and self-directed debauchery, replies as only a man crippled by the fault of reality could. “Unfortunately,” he says.
Unfortunately, Johnny Eager doesn’t always know how to follow its more potent moments. It’s too sleek and too formal, even when Eager jumps a poor sap’s car off a bridge and gloats about the crime. There’s something missing, like LeRoy’s not quite sinister enough on the trigger.
Johnny Eager is still well worth a look. It features wonderful performances and boasts a psychological angle that overcomes its clichéd plot. And Rosson’s cinematography guides the path from the warped guts of betting houses and dog tracks to the shadowy streets where men go to find their souls.