It’s pure TNT, I tell you!
Noir has a lot of Johnnys (certainly enough for a top ten list, note to self for a future post, certainly enough for a recurring skit on In Living Color too), and here’s one of the first (predated by Johnny Apollo) and best. MGM was not generally known for gangster flicks or noirs, but what they had in spades, and lavished generously on this 1941 production, was glitz, gloss, glamour and star power, all of which made this a hit. Johnny Eager was a role Taylor picked and fought hard to get, and it was one of the first steps toward transforming his image from that of from a romantic pretty boy to a more rugged lead, in this case a racketeer who at first is only pretending to go straight.
The D.A. on Taylor’s case (Edward Arnold) has an adopted daughter, Lana Turner, who’s studying to be a social worker and falls for the slick gangster. Initially Taylor gets involved with her because he sees a way to keep the D.A. off his back and prevent a future prison stay. Taylor frames the girl in a staged murder and uses the setup to blackmail Arnold. Inevitably Taylor falls for Turner and sets things right, necessarily destroying himself in the process. Instrumental in finding Taylor’s heart of gold beneath the cynical crust is his only friend, the intellectual, philosophical and poetic Van Heflin.
Considering the caliber of his co-stars, it’s impressive that Heflin outshone them, and won an Oscar for his performance; it was the first awarded to any gangster movie. Mervyn LeRoy (Little Caesar) directed, and brought some degree of authenticity to the picture, but this was still more glam than grit, with one of the most gorgeous screen couples ever captured at their prime. They were indeed “Pure TNT!” as the ads described them–“Taylor ‘n Turner–Together they’re terrific!” Dressed to the nines, both give excellent performances. Robert Taylor proved he could be tough and hardboiled, a persona he would perfect after the war in noirs like Undercurrent, High Wall, the Bribe as well as in other genres. The movies Lana Turner made in this same year made her a star, and she was as innocently beautiful here as she would be dangerously so in 1946’s the Postman Always Rings Twice. Such a well matched couple, but sadly, despite plans for several more film pairings, they never made another movie together.
a version of this was previously published in THE DARK PAGES, newsletter for film noir fans. Click here to check out the latest issues