“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)
A confoundingly entertaining pastiche the 1942 MGM gangster melodrama Johnny Eager has Robert Taylor and Lana Turner as star-crossed lovers, with Van Heflin as a drunkard and consigliore to Taylor’s titular mob boss. Heflin received a richly-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role.
An unashamedly contrived scenario by John Lee Mahin from a story by James Edward Grant has Johnny the conniving gangster find redemption too late and with a belly full of lead. There are queer overtones as Heflin holds the dying Taylor in his arms whose last words wax nostalgic for the ‘figurative mountains’ they never climbed together.
Emeritus director Mervyn LeRoy fashions a faux silk purse that has you believing the absurd coincidences and machinations which propel the flatly presented narrative to an out-of-left-field hiatus of beguiling expressionist cred. Much is owed to veteran DP Harold Rosson whose masterful lighting of the final sequence on dark city streets elevates the affair to something more than the sum of what has come before. Taylor and Turner, who are inspired to break-out of their corn-fed roles with the able assistance of Heflin and a motley crew of craven hoods, deliver a mesmerising operatic finale, closed by a wonderfully ironic final frame that is pure cinema.