This is a guest post from a friend of the show, Scott from Toronto. Enjoy!
At first glance, the 1963’s Johnny Cool starring a young Henry Silva, may seem like a fast-paced romp of the Rat Pack version of New York’s underworld. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, there’s plenty of style and Sammy Davis Jr.’s rather ridiculous theme song, but scratch the surface and you’ll find some grit hidden under the rug. Ultimately, this uneven mixture of kitsch and kill prevents the movie from achieving greatness.
Silva stars as the title character, but we first meet him as a rebellious Sicilian child. He goes on to become a cult hero in Sicily, but is ultimately apprehended by the authorities and set to Rome. There, he cuts a deal with a major US mafia head on the lam named Johnny Colini. Against his will, he is groomed to stand-in as Colini’s son and sent stateside. His mission is part strategy, part vengeance with and end game of putting the Colini family back on top.
Upon arrival, he begins to make a name for himself as a thorn in the mob’s side. He hooks up with a dame (played by pre-Bewitched Elizabeth Montgomery) and that turns out to be his biggest mistake. The cast is filled out by a 60s All-Star team including Telly Salavas, Jim Backus, Mort Sahl and a couple of actual Rat Packers (Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop). Keep your eyes peeled for Character Actor Hall of Fame member Elisha Cook Jr. and King Kong’s Robert Armstrong in a small role.
Director William Asher, much better known for directing a handful of ‘Beach’ movies as well as a ton of TV work, is a little outside of his element here and it shows in the film’s lack of consistent tone. Some of the scenes of violence (and implied violence) are quite grim and gritty for the early 60s, including a sexual assault on Montgomery’s character and the rather disturbing final scene. Other elements, from Bishop’s manic car dealer to the aforementioned theme song, lean towards the cartoony and betray the film’s otherwise brutal tone. Kudos go to Asher goes for a strong job establishing location as the movie moves from Rome to New York to Los Angeles. He ensures that the atmosphere of each locale is well established.
Overall, it is an interesting watch, but more as an historical artifact than as a crime film. Silva fans will love his wild-eyed performance as the likeable anti hero and it is great to see him given a shot at a true starring role.
Make or Break:
Silva’s reaction to the rape. It is at this moment that his allegiances shift and he ceases to be playing a role in some mafia drama.
It has to go to Silva, as his charisma carries this film from Palermo to Vegas. I must admit that Montgomery turned in a very strong performance as a gun moll with a head on her shoulders. It had never seen her do anything like this and I was pleasantly surprised.
7.00 out of 10
There’s a lot to like here, but an uneven tone and some odd pacing really hurt the film in the long run. Some have called it a forgotten classic, but I would not go quite that far. It is, indeed, ahead of its time as a look at the violent backbone to organized crime, but it has enough early 60s/Rat Pack DNA to keep it in the ‘Dated but Fun’ category.