US / 104 minutes / bw / Chrislaw, United Artists Dir & Pr: William Asher Scr: Joseph Landon Story: The Kingdom of Johnny Cool (1959) by John McPartland Cine: Sam Leavitt Cast: Henry Silva, Elizabeth Montgomery, Richard Anderson, Jim Backus, Joey Bishop, Brad Dexter, Wanda Hendrix, Hank Henry, Marc Lawrence, John McGiver, Gregory Morton, Mort Sahl, Telly Savalas, Joan Staley, Sammy Davis Jr., Katharine Bard, Steve Peck, Douglas Henderson, Frank Albertson, Mary Scott, Elisha Cook (i.e., Elisha Cook Jr), John Dierkes, Robert Armstrong, Michael Davis.
A deliberate evocation of the films noirs and gangster movies more usually associated with releases from two or three decades earlier, this adds glossy production values, a splendid score and plenty of star names. And yet, while highly watchable, it seems to lose much of those qualities—most obviously in the areas of direction and cinematography—that made its models so grittily absorbing.
In 1943 in Sicily, young Salvatore Giordano (Michael Davis) learns to kill as part of the Resistance fighting back against the fascists who killed his mother. Twenty years later, he’s a bandit chieftain, a Robin Hood figure with a huge price on his head . . . yet unlikely to be arrested because the local cops and politicians are on his side.
One day, though, as Giordano (Silva) attends a wedding, the authorities arrive in force and chase him off into the wild countryside. There they apparently put an end to the career of the great Salvatore Giordano.
But no. Next we know he’s in chains in Rome, where he’s been brought by the notorious Italian-American gang boss Johnny Colini (Lawrence). Colini has faked Giordano’s death: the man the cops killed was a ringer. The hoodlum gives Giordano his own name, Johnny Colini—or “Johnny Cool”—and tells him he now has the status of an adopted son.
A couple of years later, educated to remove his peasant ways, Colini sends the new Johnny Cool to the US to exact revenge upon the hoodlums who forced Colini out of the States and seized his criminal empire. Johnny (as we’ll call him from here on in) learned in his early years to be in effect a killing machine. Now that he has a veneer of culture, the sky looks to be the limit.
And so he sets about infiltrating the mob with a view to mass murder. Along the way he encounters rich young divorcee Dare Guiness (Montgomery)—spelled “Guiness,” not “Guinness,” according to a police spokesman late in the movie—and the two instantly fall in love, or something like it.
When a couple of hoodlums rape Dare as a means of intimidation they become the first mob victims of Johnny’s murder spree . . .
Johnny Cool has an exceptional cast, and some of their contributions, even in cameo roles, are creditable, yet in a sense they’re almost all wasted. What holds the movie together is Elizabeth Montgomery, who’s here as good as I can ever recall seeing her: her Dare is alluring, credibly unpredictable, in many ways a flake but at the same time someone we might think of as a complex femme fatale in reverse. (Even toward the end, where the screenplay has Dare suffer a sudden and arguably improbable change of heart, Montgomery manages to make the transition—and the consequent betrayal of the man whom moments ago she loved more than life itself—just about plausible.)
All of the rest of the stellar cast—including Henry Silva, who gives us a rather weak, rather watery homme fatal—could have been replaced by unknown actors without any detectable adverse affect on the result. The only exception might be Sammy Davis Jr, who gives a wonderful cameo as a dice shark called Educated. (He also sings the soundtrack’s two songs.)
So who are all these other stars? Some of them aren’t even credited: Douglass Dumbrille plays a corrupt city politician, Joseph Calleia plays a tourist, and so on.
Many of the rest are knocked off by Johnny as he works through the hit list his “father” gave him: Jim Backus is corrupt wheeler-dealer Louis Murphy; John McGiver and Mort Sahl are Vegas kingpins Oscar B. “O.B.” Hinds and Ben Morrow (the latter gives Johnny an eye-opening explanation of how he’s being used by Colini, but Johnny kills him anyway); Brad Dexter plays supposedly aboveboard millionaire Lennart Crandall, whom Johnny dynamites in his own swimming pool; and, best of all, Telly Savalas portrays the big boss himself, Vincenzo “Vince” Santangelo. (Okay, so maybe Savalas could be added to Sammy Davis Jr on the list of “irreplaceables.”)
There are some survivors. Gregory Morton and Steve Peck are, respectively, Santangelo’s henchmen Jerry March and Kromlein. Elisha Cook Jr is squandered in a bit part as (supposedly) an undertaker. Joey Bishop is a loudmouth dealer who sells Dare a used car. Wanda Hendrix is Murphy’s secretary, Miss Connolly. Hank Henry—whom I kept thinking was Rodney Dangerfield!—is Larry, driver of a tourist bus. Joan Staley plays Dare’s old pal Suzy Blakely. Douglas Henderson is the leader of the FBI team out to catch Johnny (though why they’d want to, seeing as he’s wiping out scumbags they’ve never been able to arrest, is anyone’s guess). Mary Scott gives a charming cameo as Vegas grifter Margaret Huntington . . .
The list could go on. And that’s actually, I think, a weakness of the movie. When you’re sitting there star-spotting rather than getting pulled into the drama, a movie of this nature is failing to do what it presumably set out to do, which is tell an absorbing story.
Director William Asher and star Elizabeth Montgomery were both married to other people when they first met on the set of Johnny Cool, but, like Dare and Johnny, they fell for each other and were soon to divorce their spouses and wed. Asher would later direct his wife in most of the episodes of Bewitched (1964–72), the starring role in which, as the witch Samantha, is certainly the portrayal for which she’s best remembered.
The TCM site has an interesting background article on the movie giving information I don’t have space for here. Its summary of the contemporary reception is especially revealing, I think:
This brutal and downbeat crime drama received mixed reviews when it was initially released. The New York Daily News and Los Angeles Herald–Examiner both praised the movie but the New York Times thought that, “Peter Lawford, who unexpectedly [executive-]produced this collage, might well have taken a look at the rushes and saved himself the expense of a fairly elaborate group of guest stars” and Newsweek called the film a “weary, dreary, stupid, jerry-built messy fraud of a picture.” The most evenhanded review probably came from the staff at Variety who praised the performances and look of the film but criticized its script and abundant violence. Today Johnny Cool seems like a gentle relic . . . But when it was released in 1963 the movie’s unexpected savagery raised more than a few eyebrows.
That’s not the major difference that was in the forefront of my mind as the movie came to its end. If Johnny Cool were to be made today, my guess is that Johnny would either get away with his crimes (and the girl), possibly taking an excursion to Rome to “clean up” Johnny Colini as well—or he’d die in a blaze of glory befitting a hero. In 1963 moviemakers were, I suppose, eager to convey the message that “Crime Doesn’t Pay” (even though, in the noir ethos, it sometimes seemed to), and so Johnny is given an ignominious end—in fact, in the last few words of the soundtrack, as Sammy Davis Jr sings “The Ballad of Johnny Cool,” Johnny’s described as “a fool” (maybe the rhyme was irresistible), which appears to be a bit of a travesty.
I’ve focused on my (and others’) criticisms of the movie, yet it has a fair amount going for it. Aside from anything else, it rattles along at a good pace and never falls into the trap of dullness: where many movies feel longer than their running times (sometimes very much so!), in the case of Johnny Cool I found the opposite.