Thursday, September 16, 2010


Here's a minor example of the Rat Pack aesthetic, produced by Peter Lawford and featuring Sammy Davis Jr. on screen and on the soundtrack, as well as Joey Bishop as a car salesman. The director is an odd choice for what proves to be a very hard-boiled crime story: William Asher is probably best known for the AIP "Beach Party" cycle of eccentric teen comedies. Those films have their virtues (I watch 'em for Harvey Lembeck, the celebrity cameos and girls in bikinis, in no particular order) but those don't necessarily translate to a tough Mob tale. Asher may explain why we see such unlikely gangsters as Jim Backus and John McGiver, though by comparison they manage to make Elisha Cook Jr. look respectable as a higher-ranking mafioso. Asher definitely explains why we have Elizabeth Montgomery as the ingenue. They were married and on the brink of Bewitched at this time, so this is the Montgomery who showed dramatic potential (to me, at least, in retrospect) as the mute soldier waging a solo postapocalyptic war against Charles Bronson in a Twilight Zone episode. All of these people seem like strange company for the star of Johnny Cool: the mighty Henry Silva in a rare bit of top billing. Silva had built up a nice resume of action roles (we've seen him in The Tall T and The Bravados, among others), but he may also count as a sort of protege of the Rat Pack, having been one of the original Ocean's 11 and an antagonist for Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate. Asher's film may have been Lawford's attempt to boost a deserving player's career, but it didn't quite work out.

Adapted from a novel, The Kingdom of Johnny Cool, by John McPartland, the film follows the fortunes of Salvatore Giordano, a thinly disguised version of Salvatore Giuliano, of whom I'll have more to say after my next Netflix shipment arrives. Giordano is a bandit who grew up in the hard climate of World War II Sicily and has ever since defied both the government and the mafia. An American reporter (Richard Anderson) manages to land an interview with him just before the hammer finally comes down. Silva in beard and sunglasses is a strange, Joaquin Phoenix-like visage, albeit more personable, but that thankfully doesn't last. Giordano somehow ends up on foot chased by a helicopter. Brought down, he's replaced on the ground by a double whose impersonation is enhanced by having his face blown off, while Giordano himself is whisked away and left in the opulent study of one John Colini (Marc Lawrence), a deported American gangster on the Lucky Luciano model. Colini likes Giordano's style, ruthlessness and resiliency and has deemed him the right man for a mission of revenge against the gangsters who ratted him out and stole his power and fortune. The exile still has the power and means to send Giordano on a Grand Tour to learn the ropes of international organized crime. To make his intentions clear to the Americans, Colini gives the cleaned-and-duded-up Giordano both his name and his nickname, "Johnny Cool."

From there, the film is a cross-continental rampage as "the new Johnny Cool" takes out Colini's enemies, the biggest of whom is played by Telly Savalas, which is more like it for this kind of movie. Along the way, Salvatore/Johnny picks up a groupie, Dare Guinness (Montgomery), a society girl who falls for him after watching him beat a man up in a nightclub. Her vulnerability complicates his mission, especially when two goons pretending to be cops (Joe Turkel's one of them) employ the tried-and-true rape method of interrogation on her while Johnny's busy cleaning out a gambling den by forcing eyepatched dice-master "Educated" (Davis) to roll winners at gunpoint. Discovering Dare is dishabille and disarray, Johnny coolly marches back where he came from, finds the two offenders in a parking garage, and gets medieval on them. Undeterred, Dare becomes Johnny's accomplice and driver in a plot to blow up another gangster. She weakens, eventually, as a traffic ticket causes her plans for a final rendezvous with Johnny to unravel. For his part, Johnny's resolve is jolted when another victim warns him that Colini will destroy him eventually the same way he's using Johnny to destroy his old allies. He decides to double down, following through on Colini's revenge while plotting Colini's own demise so that he, Salvatore Giordano, will rule the American Mafia, little realizing that Dare has already sealed his fate, one that seems accurately described as living death....

Johnny Cool plays out like a delusion of grandeur, with Silva an impossibly invincible army of one until he's betrayed by a woman. It's a story in the Public Enemy or Scarface mode, measuring how far one man can go on guts, cunning and violence, but it never feels as deceptively convincing as those films. It's not Silva's fault; he proved himself quite capable of playing such a role in numerous Italian crime films during the 1970s. The problem with Asher's film is its overall tone. From the casting of comic character actors to the Batman-like music from Billy May and the godawful theme song sung by Davis, Johnny Cool seems to want to be a straight drama and a send-up at the same time. When it finally settles on the former with a brutal finish and a grim coda as Dare turns herself in, it doesn't have the tragic power it should have. Johnny's reversal of fortune is so abrupt and absolute that it only leaves you stunned. I'm sure everyone involved felt badass ending the film that way, but I just felt manipulated in a way that wouldn't be as bad if the film had maintained a more consistent mood.

Silva is perfectly fine at what he does, while Montgomery is stuck with a thankless job playing a character that audiences will despise by the end of the film. At least she's attractive and reasonably convincing in the role. The depth of character acting here is impressive on paper, but not many of the actors have that much to do. Savalas isn't yet fully himself as a personality (he isn't fully shaved yet, either) and doesn't get to do much beyond giving orders and dying. Sammy Davis makes a weird impression in his one scene, while Bishop makes none beyond his car pitch. If the Rat Pack (albeit the B team) really brought anything to Johnny Cool, it was most likely bad taste, or a quality that we recognize from a distance of decades as camp. Henry Silva deserved better.

This trailer was uploaded to YouTube by PIMannix.

No comments: