sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2016-04-30 10:13 pm
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I seem to have offended your light of love by using a polysyllabic word

I slept almost twelve hours last night. Quite possibly that's more than the entire previous week combined. Finally I can do something with my brain.

Here's the thing about Van Heflin. If you cast him in westerns, he's a decent, embattled family man, and I always remember Alan Ladd in Shane (1953) and Glenn Ford in 3:10 to Yuma (1957) instead. If you cast him in film noir, he's exponentially more interesting and I've made a mental note to check out The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and The Prowler (1951). And if you cast him in Johnny Eager (1942), he walks off with the entire picture in the pocket of his unbuttoned overcoat, weaving unsteadily but unstoppably through the tropes of the crime film with a distracted disregard for heteronormativity and the PCA. No wonder he won an Oscar for it—at thirty-two years old, the youngest winner in his category until Jack Lemmon beat him by a year for Mister Roberts in 1956. Jeff Hartnett is the most real person in his movie and one of the nicest queer characters I've met in his genre. How text is the subtext in this movie? I watched it over Easter weekend with my mother. As we were washing the dishes afterward, she said suddenly, "You kept waiting for them to kiss!"

He's not the protagonist, of course. Robert Taylor headlines as the evocatively named Johnny Eager, a formerly high-rolling racketeer turned ostensible model parolee; he makes an honest living as a taxi driver and never misses an appointment with his parole officer, but behind the scenes he's preparing to open a dog track with an old associate as the front, resuming his position at the head of the city's underworld. Lately the routine buy-offs have hit a roadblock in the person of John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold), the same crusading DA who originally put Johnny behind bars and is now cracking down on gambling until Johnny's ambitious second-in-command fumes, "I haven't got a dozen books running—no dice, no roulette, my whole crowd's hungry . . . I got sixty slot collectors on my payroll, you know? I can't pay them off with conversation." With the impeccable coincidence of melodrama, the cool bombshell of a sociology student with whom Johnny's latest sparks are flying (Lana Turner, also starring above the title) will turn out to be his old enemy's stepdaughter, a potential lever on a famously incorruptible public figure—and Johnny will have to decide between criminal success and the less material rewards of the heart when his plan to buy her old man's silence with her complicity in an apparent crime exacts a harsher toll on the stubbornly faithful Lisbeth than Johnny had expected to care about. Despite its gritty, Warner-esque crime trappings, the film's essential question is a romantic one: can Johnny Eager love? Certainly he's shown no signs of it before now. He brushes off girlfriends old and new with the same cold-blooded charm, smiling no less attractively for his absolute indifference to their plights. When his oldest friend double-crosses him for a share in an up-and-coming, less patient syndicate, Johnny dispatches the man with the help of a bridge and a freight train and then returns to a poker game which he wins easily, grinning at his unsettled rivals as he lets slip the fate of poor, late Lew Rankin (Barry Nelson) and pockets the pot. The philosophy he expresses is tough, careless, and looking out for number one: "Give your best pal your last fifty bucks, wouldn't you? Well, he's already a dead duck or he wouldn't need the fifty, and after he's spent it you're both strictly from hunger. So what? Sure, the suckers all give me sour looks—the minute they stop, I'm worried, see, because then I know I'm not on my toes. And that's where I'm staying, ready to hit the first guy that's fool enough to try and cross me in the first place." He shows a puzzled affection toward a retired greyhound left to him by a backer of the dog track, but come on, that's a TV Trope. Let's get back to Van Heflin.

Throughout the film's opening scenes, as he goes about his business on both sides of the law, Johnny has one question for everyone he meets: "Seen Jeff Hartnett today?" He finally gets an answer from his devoted but neglected moll Garnet (Patricia Dane), whose exasperation suggests this isn't the first time this evidently important, as yet unexplained figure has gone AWOL: "Oh, sure, but he wandered away, full of gin and big words." We still won't meet him for another ten minutes, but that's Jeff in a nutshell, like a cross between Clive Brook's Rolls Royce in Underworld (1927) and Thomas Mitchell's Kid in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).1 He's not beautiful like Taylor's Johnny with his debonair mustache and his suggestive mouth, but he's got the more interesting looks of the two, more slender in the face than in any of Heflin's later roles, angular enough to look taller than his nearly six feet. His heavy-lidded eyes give him a curious resemblance to Peter Lorre, albeit a fair-haired, Shakespeare-quoting drop-out version. Most of the time he's got a drink in his hand and usually a cigarette, too; minus these accoutrements, he's either hungover or asleep. He's clever, disheveled, melancholy, sarcastic. He has a tired, educated voice, dry and meandering, sometimes very gentle. His face is always having an argument with itself—the mouth is cynical, but the eyes are concerned. His position in Johnny's organization is vague but unassailable. He's a right-hand brain, a confidant and a connection; if he doesn't get too plastered on his information-gathering rounds, he's as good as a daily paper for the news of the underworld. He accompanies Johnny almost everywhere, referring to himself as "a modern-day Boswell, meticulously recording for posterity the doings of a unique individual—an individual out of the days of the Medicis, and I'm your Boswell. The story of Johnny Eager. The next forty generations will find it required reading along with the words of Machiavelli." He also reads, quite naturally, as Johnny's lover.

That Jeff is in love with Johnny, I am confident is intended on the film's part. Any further implications may have snuck in accidentally around the edges, but they marshal a surprising amount of evidence on their side. As far as the parole board is concerned, Johnny Eager the reformed crook lives in a cold-water flat with his "cousin Peg and her daughter," the former a poor but decent widow, the latter a studious schoolgirl. In fact the "cousin" was formerly married to one of Johnny's henchmen ("He was killed in an automobile . . . by some rats with a sawed-off shotgun!"), the daughter is a dance-hall hellraiser, and both of them get a nice cash bonus for letting Johnny crash at their place whenever he hears that his parole officer is about to pay him a surprise house call. Johnny himself keeps a luxurious apartment behind the offices of the dog track and he shares it with Jeff. It's a solid domestic arrangement. Girls come and go, but Johnny's "stooge" stays, as permanent a fixture as the streamlined furniture or the modern sculpture by the door, headachily wincing his way through love-talk at the breakfast table between Johnny and his latest imminent ex. There's one bed in the apartment. It's got room enough for two sets of pillows and matching nightstands on either side; there's an Art Deco portrait of an elegantly gowned woman framed over the headboard, nothing cheesecake. There are couches and chaise longues aplenty scattered around the modish living room and we see Jeff flop down into some of them—he's the kind of loose-limbed, spatially careless character whose movements are best described by terms like "sprawl," "slouch," and "drift"—but when he takes an inopportune morning for a bender, Johnny sends him explicitly to bed to sleep it off before business in the evening.2 We see Johnny wake in that same bed when visited by John Benson Farrell the morning after Johnny has convinced Lisbeth that she killed a man in self-defense of her gangster lover. We don't see Garnet in that bed. In the days of the Production Code, we wouldn't, of course, but in the same fashion we don't get even a hint that she has ever lived with Johnny rather than visiting when convenient to him. Trying and failing to walk out on him, she has to cover her return with the pathetically transparent "I forgot my purse," implying she doesn't keep any more permanent possessions at her boyfriend's place.

In fact, with the exception of Lisbeth, Johnny is almost flamboyantly indifferent to women. Garnet can wind her arms around him all she likes and cover his face with hopeful, ardent kisses, but Johnny doesn't embrace her in return or even turn his mouth to meet hers. "You might say you like it," she pouts; he responds curtly, barely taking his attention away from the phone call he's making, "Any time I don't like it, you'll hear me, loud and clear." This last reassurance is a lie. Within a few scenes he'll be packing her off to Florida on pretext of her own safety, promising to visit her as soon as the furor of the track opening dies down; Jeff observes the whole act, aghast but not surprised, eventually folding one hand over his face so that he won't have to watch Johnny reassuring the rightly suspicious Garnet that there's no other woman and all the rest of the barefaced soft soap. Earlier he dared Johnny to "choose between us, Eager—me or your beloved" and was rewarded when Johnny told Garnet to take the air. Now he tries for the nth unsuccessful time to persuade Johnny to treat his partners with a little more compassion, never mind how he feels about them himself: "Johnny, you can feel sorry for someone you don't like if you've got a heart or soul or decency . . . I guess you don't know what I'm talking about." Johnny's just as cold toward Glenda Farrell's Mae, an old flame now married to the same honest cop whom Johnny surreptitiously arranged to transfer to an out-of-the-way beat at the start of the dog track scheme; unaware of her old lover's involvement in her husband's soul-killing commute, she's come to ask if he can pull a few strings "for old time's sake" and get her husband reinstated at his old precinct. Despite fondly recalling Mae as "the only dame I ever slugged a guy over," Johnny lies to her as coolly as he did to Garnet: "Sorry, Mae. There's nothing I can do . . . There's nothing lower than an ex-bigshot, you know that . . . No such thing as old time's sake." Jeff, who has been drinking steadily throughout as if trying to drown his bullshit detector, finds that he can't do it and puts down the glass with a sourly muttered "That sure went down the wrong way." His closeness to Johnny notwithstanding, his sympathy is always with the women who love Johnny and get a raw deal for it. He's in much the same position himself.

This is where I start feeling that I am going to need to read more queer theory if I want to discuss the movies that interest me as they deserve, because I find it really striking how strongly the script of Johnny Eager aligns Jeff with Johnny's female lovers through his visible devotion and suffering but raises the possibility of reciprocation by granting him a place of greater intimacy in Johnny's life. Garnet and Mae know about Johnny's professional activities and they have presumable access to his bed, but emotionally they're kept at arm's length and discarded only a little less fatally than employees who have outworn their usefulness to the boss. Lisbeth is Jeff's closest double, the college-educated society blond(e) pulled into the underworld for love of a beautiful tough guy. Her interest in sociology chimes with his biographical pretensions and penchant for, as Johnny puts it, "running me through the strainer or analyzing me or whatever it's called." He drinks to deal with his impossible situation; she drives herself nearly into a breakdown because of hers. Both of them call out from Johnny a genuine if confused attachment that will eventually lead him to break his own self-centered rules, putting himself at risk for both of their sakes. But she is also the victim of Johnny's cruelest deception, made to believe that the gun with which she shot a supposed attacker was loaded with real bullets, not blanks—and even when he decides to set things right with Lisbeth, his idea of giving her a happy ending does not include truthfully confessing the depth of his feelings for her. The only secrets Johnny keeps from Jeff are the ones he's also keeping from himself. The timeline of their relationship is unclear, but the breadth of Jeff's knowledge suggests that it predates Johnny's jail term. He knows where all the bodies are buried, figuratively and literally ("poor old Lew Rankin and those two impetuous Moletti brothers, may their souls rest in cement"), he knows the rise and fall of Johnny's romances, the ins and outs of the syndicate business, the fortunes and disloyalties of Johnny's gambling crowd, and for all of Johnny's self-reliant suspicion it never once occurs to him not to trust Jeff with damn near everything. Rather, he insists on the other man's company on almost all occasions, including to the doorstep of dates with Lisbeth; the only one of Johnny's regular haunts where Jeff cannot be found is the phony parole-board home address, where one imagines he could not be satisfactorily explained to probation officers or visiting sociologists. Johnny even shows an atypical concern for his wayward companion, adamantly presenting him with seltzer for his hangovers—"Am I going to have to hold your nose and pour it down you?"—and occasionally going so far as to refuse him further drinks, though Jeff can usually cadge a "short one" out of him with an unutterably pathetic look. The utilitarian explanation is that he can't make use of Jeff's brains if they're sticky stuff in the bottom of a shot glass, but the possibility of an emotional reason troubles Johnny enough to pick a fight with Jeff over it. After being criticized for his treatment of Garnet, he comes back with a brutal rundown of Jeff's failings: "Sometimes I wonder why I keep you around . . . You're always telling me I don't understand something or other. Well, you're the guy who doesn't understand, because you're a sucker and a sucker never understands a smart guy. If you weren't a chump for booze, you'd probably be a chump for some dame—yeah, decent and pure about it, too, until she walked off with some bald-headed bankroll and sent you back on the booze again." Johnny doesn't stick the scenario quite close enough to home, but he's hit the mark anyway. What Jeff's a chump for is Johnny. He wouldn't hang around otherwise, in a relationship and an environment that take such a toll on his self-respect. At the end of Johnny's broadside, he says only one thing, an odd note of satisfaction in his voice: "Now I know why you keep me around, Johnny . . . You keep me around because even Johnny Eager has to have one friend."

I don't imagine it's news to anyone reading this review that queerness in film noir is heavily associated with crime. Social deviancy, sexual deviancy, six of one, half a dozen of The Maltese Falcon (1941).3 I should really watch The Celluloid Closet (1996) one of these days. Where Johnny Eager differs from any other crime picture I've seen from its era—and possibly even later—is its moral alignment. Far from being any kind of corrupting force, Jeff's love for Johnny is one of the instruments of his redemption; Johnny's capacity to return it is as central to the outcome of the story as his feelings for Lisbeth. Early on in their acquaintance, Lisbeth said speculatively of Johnny that she thought "he'd beat a woman if she made him angry." Instead it's Jeff who gets a smack in the jaw for delivering a criticism that actually hurts, the judgment that Johnny can't understand a proposition "because it's unselfish." He walks out with hardly another word and not a look at Johnny, but returns a few minutes later with a telling analogy: "Like poor Garnet, I came back for my purse." To an astounded Johnny, he explains almost steadily how he had decided to "sing the whole beautiful opera" to the DA and then kill himself. It seemed the best way to help Lisbeth, whose jilted society boyfriend just offered Johnny half a million in cash to take her away and make her happy, but he had to abandon his plan because "she'd only eat her heart out a little slower with you in the death cell and I—I haven't got the nerve to blow my brains out, nor the money to pay one of your assassins to do it for me. No, it's just like you said, Johnny. You're the boss. You've got everybody over a barrel." He's crying throughout most of his speech, tears rolling off his chin as if he doesn't notice. The smart guy always wins because he's holding the suckers' hearts. Visibly shaken, Johnny agrees to tell Lisbeth the truth, fully aware of the danger it will place him in, both from the dead man he intends to prove to her is alive and the stepfather she might spill the whole racket to. "Come on, now," he encourages Jeff, "I'm doing this for you as much as anybody. You're not going to walk out on me again, are you?"

He never does, not even when Johnny tries to send him away as self-sacrificingly as he places an unconscious Lisbeth into her former boyfriend's car and orders them both out of town before an ex-henchman's allies come after him with guns blazing. "Take her away someplace, anyplace, up in the mountains or something where there's lakes and stuff. Just you two together." It's the fantasy of running away together out west that Jeff tried to share with him in their hurried, unacknowledged farewell, but lest you worry that in transferring it to Lisbeth and her other male lover Johnny has signaled his ultimate allegiance to heterosexuality, his dying words in Jeff's arms are a callback to that same fantasy: "Hey, Jeff, what's that highest mountain where we're going?" Kneeling in the dark city streets with a bewildered policeman looking on, Jeff cries over him, presses his mouth to Johnny's rain-tangled hair. My mother and I did not shout in unison at the screen "JUST KISS!" only because there was important dialogue still taking place. I can't help but feel that this cannot have been what the Breen Office envisioned when it mandated an ending in which crime does not pay, i.e., Johnny cannot live happily ever after with Lisbeth because he's a criminal and she's a girl from a good family, but despite its tragedy it can be read as an unintentional argument for queerness, bisexuality included, as a healthy form of emotional expression,* so honestly I'll take it. "This guy could've climbed the highest mountain in the world if he'd just started up the right one."

* A note here that I cannot include in the ordinary footnotes if I'm being nice to people who care about spoilers, but which interests me nonetheless. Tears in Johnny Eager are the province of women and "weak" men like Jeff, who never seems to carry a handkerchief despite crying with a frequency unmatched by his female co-stars. They are also the unmistakable signature of love: Jeff confessing that he couldn't "turn the key" on his closest friend, Lisbeth pledging her silence to Johnny, Johnny sending Lisbeth away for her own good, Jeff cradling the shot-down Johnny in his arms. They are visible emotion, unacceptable in the hard world of a "smart guy" and absolutely normal and human and necessary. "So I've turned sucker," Johnny flares at Jeff as they drive back from a visit to Lisbeth, "so what about it? What about it? Have you got any other name for it?"–"Sure," Jeff replies, settling complacently into the passenger seat. "That's what makes the world go round."

I have to run, so I'll wrap up fast. I watched Johnny Eager just two days after speculating aloud on the fantasy casting of Frederick Nebel's John X. Kennedy. I didn't realize how beautifully Van Heflin would fit the bill, right down to the crying. Alternately, selected scenes from this movie function quite decently as film noir AU of Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint (1987). It took me all afternoon and evening to write this post, but Jeff Hartnett and Johnny Eager are worth it. This soft noir brought to you by my smart backers at Patreon.

1. A film I have wanted to write about for years and almost did in January before getting derailed by Arisia. Watch this space, dammit.

2. He's standing in the doorway when Johnny asks hesitantly, referencing an earlier exchange with Lisbeth, "Say, Jeff, you know these things—that guy Cyrano, Cyrano de Bergerac or something—does a dame really fall for the type of chatter he gave out?" Despite the hangover and the bromide, Jeff squints at him with expertly deadpan apprehensiveness: "Are you starting to encounter literate dames?"–"Who said anything about dames?" Johnny snaps immediately. "Go on to bed."

3. Never mind Wilmer, the things Joel Cairo does with his cane in that first interview with Sam Spade are an amazing exercise in the subliminally X-rated.
thawrecka: (Default)

[personal profile] thawrecka 2016-05-01 09:38 am (UTC)(link)
I remember The Celluloid Closet being fairly illuminating, but then I watched it in the late 90s when it was fairly new.
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[personal profile] thawrecka 2016-05-01 08:07 pm (UTC)(link)
I studied film for a few years and genuinely would never have guessed you didn't have a formal background in film.

I watched The Celluloid Closet on TV when I was in high school, so I have only the vaguest memories of it, and it had more effect on me as a queer person than as a film fan. However, pretty good look at the subject and I remember it having plenty of examples. The book is older but might be more comprehensive, FWIW.
skygiants: Na Yeo Kyeung, from Capital Scandal, giving a big thumbs-up (seal of approval)

[personal profile] skygiants 2016-05-01 01:17 pm (UTC)(link)
a curious resemblance to Peter Lorre, albeit a fair-haired, Shakespeare-quoting drop-out version

I'm not sure I've ever heard you describe a character more directly designed to appeal to your interest!

(...no but also the film sounds fascinating.)
genarti: Sepia-toned bridge & trees & figure sitting on bridge looking down, with text "we're gone but we don't know where." ([misc] and we don't know where)

[personal profile] genarti 2016-05-02 06:21 pm (UTC)(link)
This is 100% not my kind of film to watch, but I love your review and your analysis of it. Hypnotically compelling even as it spirals towards ever more disaster, just as noir ought to be.
genarti: ([misc] misty morning sidewalk)

[personal profile] genarti 2016-05-03 02:07 pm (UTC)(link)
I am especially glad to be able to present noir in a form that is interesting to you!

I find noir interesting, intellectually, but I am very rarely up for the experience of watching movies or reading novels where everyone is unpleasant or making clearly terrible choices. I need a certain amount of kindness or hope in a story. Not everyone needs to be nice, and it doesn't need to be a happy ending or a happy story, but noir tends to be too far in the other direction for me. So I love reading other people's summaries and analyses instead, and yours are always compelling and fascinating.

[identity profile] martianmooncrab.livejournal.com 2016-05-01 03:55 am (UTC)(link)
I have seen Van Heflin play both good and bad characters and he has always been believable ...

[identity profile] martianmooncrab.livejournal.com 2016-05-01 08:07 pm (UTC)(link)
I know, they make him trail worn and then make him emote... sigh.

[identity profile] swan-tower.livejournal.com 2016-05-01 10:01 am (UTC)(link)
That sounds like it would be remarkable even now. For the time? O_O