Saturday 17 September 2016

Chilling… Johnny Cool (1963)

If you’re expecting a tongue-in-cheek caper movie with a modern jazz score from the Rat Pack Extended Universe… Johnny Cool will take you places you didn’t mean to be. Sure Sammy’s in it as is Henry Silva and Joey Bishop whilst Peter Lawford produced but this Johnny turns out more chilled than cool… and the film leaves you far more anxious than you expected.

Directed by William Asher and based on John McPartland’s novel The Kingdom of Johnny Cool the film transcends its – now un-cool – title to deliver a gripping late noire that features many shades of grey and an ending that you won’t see coming.

Elizabeth Montgomery
It’s fairly violent too, at least in terms of body count and mostly-unseen assassinations: it portrays a life lived in death and by men who have no choice but to kill or be killed. Does it glamorise the mob? I don’t really think so… their lives are nasty, brutal and short and the only chance of an honourable discharge for our hero is lost once the devastating reality of his life is revealed.

We begin in 1943 Sicily as Nazi soldiers brutalise a young woman and her son. Rescue comes too late and the boy picks up a gun that must now become his “family”.

Henry Silva looking cool
Two decades later the boy with the machine gun has become Salvatore Giordano (Henry Silva) the benevolent warlord protecting his province with benign good favour. He’s at a big local wedding, passing his blessing on the young couple – his right is might and is in favour with everyone but the government.

The wedding is raided by soldiers – no other way of trapping this man – and he is pursued over the hills via helicopter until finally being downed by a shot from on high. But, Mother of Mercy, this is not the end as a couple of men substitute another man who proceeds to suffer the summary fate planned for him.

Salvatore is dead but long live Johnny Cool. Awakening in Rome in the plush apartments of Johnny Colini (Marc Lawrence) – a Mafioso in exile – he is persuaded to become Johnny’s avenging angel in the United States. Once this surrogate Johnny “Cool” has taken care of business, he will inherit Colini’s empire all to the benefit of his people and himself…

Johnny plays the game
To America to infiltrate and annihilate Johnny soon shows how cool he is by breaking into a card game in Vegas where a man name of Educated (Sammy Davis, Jr.) is running the game… Johnny puts them all straight and his arrival is announced.

Meanwhile Johnny’s eyes alight on one of the most beautiful pair of eyes in all of the West Coast: Elizabeth Montgomery is Darien "Dare" Guinness and it’s a pleasure to see her act in something other than one of the most successful sitcoms of all time.

Guinness is good for you
Dare is a civilian and perhaps bored with the sterility of privilege. Johnny represents something real and has a charm that belies his day job: he’s a leader and a man of drive who sees himself as a fighter for freedom in his own way. Dare knows nothing of this but she likes the integrity and honesty of the man she sees.

Telly Savalas is introduced as Vincenzo 'Vince' Santangelo, the leader of the local mob and a man who sits secure in the apparent superiority of his numbers. But Johnny goes to work and gradually chips away at his sponsor’s enemies, gradually earning their respect and fear as he goes.

Elizabeth and Henry
Dare gets dragged into the picture as the mob try to use her to get to Johnny but he rescues her and the two go on the run – of run and hit – as Johnny keeps on picking off the enemy.

The two fall into a relationship but it can only be a matter of time before his past, present and future catch up with both of them.

Johnny leaves the scene
Along the way there are cameos from Jim Backus – a mob employee despatched not before he can run off a couple of patented Mr Magoo snickers - Joey Bishop as a used car salesman and versatile character actor John McGiver and mob-film veteran Elisha Cook Jr.

Not all of them make the end of the film…

Dusty Verdict: Johnny Cool is not quite as cool as it once was but it’s still s surprisingly amoral experience now with Johnny’s code of honour barely separating him from the men he is out to destroy. All of this was born in the second world war when his mother was killed… was that the Rat Pack’s rationalisation of their friends’ occupation?

Magic Montgomery
There’s a superb performance from Henry Silva at the heart and he’s matched by the sublime Miss Montgomery – who acts so well you soon forget to anticipate the wrinkling of the nose… she is magic enough just as she is.

Johnny Cool is available on DVD from Amazon: well worth watching how even in 1963 the gangster wasn’t always viewed as a pure Robin Hood… even in The Pack’s sanitised view.

Cool score from Billy May by the way.


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