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What Do You Know About Johnny Cool?
Salvatore Giordano is a bandit and folk hero in Sicily. When the army comes after him, he is shot, and the villagers told he is dead.
But Giordano's death is a ruse concocted by exiled American mobster Colini (Marc Lawrence, The Man with the Golden Gun). Colini wants the fearless and savage Giordano to go to the United States and avenge those who betrayed him.
Rechristened "Johnny Colini"—or Johnny Cool (Henry Silva, The Italian Connection)—the man who was Giordano arrives in America and quickly makes a name for himself amongst the underground. He's quick with his fists and his weapons, spends extravagantly, and name drops other gangsters indecently.
But the American gangsters can't quite figure out who he is or what he wants. By the time they do, Johnny Cool has cut a bloody swath from one end of the country to the other.
Besides his mission, he seems to care about only one thing: a pretty girl he's just met, Dare (Elizabeth Montgomery, Bewitched), a rather proper sort who finds herself passionately drawn to the murderous Johnny.
Will the mob get to Johnny—and his girl—in time? Or will Johnny Cool carry out his mentor's vendetta and wipe out all the organized criminals?
I've seen more Italian gangster/exploitation films than I've seen American, and while 1963's Johnny Cool is not as flashy as its European counterparts, in spirit it's very much the kind of film directors like Fernando di Leo and Umberto Lenzi would be making in the next decade; in fact, both Silva and Telly Savalas, who stars here as a mob boss, would go on to appear in a number of poliziotteschi in the '70s. Directed by William Asher, Johnny Cool is a nasty little gangster film, gritty, violent, and thanks to a striking performance by Elizabeth Montgomery, surprisingly sexy.
Our antihero, Johnny Cool, is a ruthless, emotionless man. It's tough to root for him not because of the terrible things he does but because we know so little about him. So focused is he on his mission, and seemingly so invulnerable, that at times he comes off as an automaton.
Of course, this film isn't about a man's feelings or emotions; it's about violence and vengeance, and it comes through in spades. Director William Asher stages some very nice kill scenes, including one is a crowded bus terminal and spectacular shooting from the outside of the top floor of a high rise.
By today's standards, the violence isn't particularly graphic, but it's plentiful and disturbing; this is a very adult movie. The following might be a SPOILER, so read at your own risk. In one scene, Dare is raped by a couple of goons who think she knows more than she does about Johnny. This must have been quite shocking in its day, and still packs a solid punch: it's rare that a leading lady in a mainstream film is raped, unless of course, that's the focus of the film. Normally, female characters threatened with assault are rescued at the last minute or it's explained that the threat wasn't carried out—even Touch of Evil made it a point to have a character state that "nothing happened" in what was clearly set up as a rape sequence. Not here. Even more surprising is that she just moves on from the assault, it doesn't become a defining moment for her character. She's avenged in a gruesome way, and she continues her relationship with Johnny; she's not viewed as "damaged." It's a harrowing sequence presented with remarkable and unsentimental candor.
Possible SPOILER done.
The film doesn't all come together. At times, Johnny's plan is a bit hard to follow, and there's a constant stream of new characters introduced—usually just to be slaughtered a few scenes later. The organized crime figures who can pinpoint to the second when Johnny will be standing outside Dare's apartment have a hard time figuring out if his threats of having "an army" to wipe them out are real or bluster, and some of Johnny's targets leave themselves ridiculously vulnerable; of course, some of Johnny's assassinations are pretty ridiculous as well. But the ridiculousness is a big part of the fun of this film.
Asher, best known for his television work (Bewitched, I Love Lucy) and beach movies (Muscle Beach Party, Beach Blanket Bingo), directs efficiently. The film's low-budget is evident, and at times, Johnny Cool looks more like a TV drama than a feature film, but the spare, stark imagery fits well with the tone.
Though his resemblance to the late Andy Kaufman is sometimes a bit unnerving, Silva is very good as the cold Johnny Cool, his expressionless face serving him well as the dehumanized killer. A more florid Telly Savalas is great as a worried mafiosi.
But the standout here is Montgomery. While Bewitched made her a household name, memories of that show tend to overshadow the fact that Montgomery was a sensitive, powerful dramatic actress. She received Emmy nominations for a number of dramatic roles, including a guest role on The Untouchables and for the landmark TV movie A Case of Rape. In Johnny Cool, Montgomery takes what could be a stock character—the good girl turned by a bad boy—and infuses it with such life that she all but steals the movie from her male co-stars. Her patrician beauty, somewhat refined airs, and obvious intelligence make her the standard "good girl," and the expectation is that she will be meekly strung along by the scheming Johnny. But Montgomery brings out the character's (probably repressed) sexual longing, and the change is startling—good girls weren't supposed to have such earthy desires. Montgomery was reputed to be courageous when it came to her dramatic work, and Johnny Cool shows her at her pre-TV stardom best.
Johnny Cool was produced by actor Peter Lawford, prominent member of Frank Sinatra's "Rat Pack." While Johnny Cool isn't a Rat Pack movie the way Ocean's Eleven was a Rat Pack movie, the Rat Pack stamp is all over it. Pack members Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis Jr. turn up in small roles, and Davis's character wears an eye patch, a little in-joke about his glass eye; Davis also sings the title song. Sinatra pals Brad Dexter (None But the Brave) and Mort Sahl have supporting roles. At one point, someone shouts, "Meet me at Jilly's," a reference to the nightspot owned by Sinatra's friend Jilly Rizzo. I wouldn't have been surprised to see Sinatra himself turn up as a cab driver or something. In addition to these '60s icons, television actors John McGiver and Jim Backus are impressive in their brief roles as mob associates.
The disc is from MGM's "on demand" line, meaning it's a made-to-order DVD-R. The image is pretty solid; small marks and imperfections are noticeable, but there's a nice layer of film grain, and it's overall clean and clear. Audio is a workable mono track. The only extra is a quite interesting trailer that asks the question, "Who is Johhny Cool?" and offers up some amusing answers from Davis, Montgomery, Lawford, and Silva. Much as I appreciate how the "on demand" sub-industry is giving us titles that might never have seen the light of day, I do wish the studios would consider adding a few supplements here and there.
A neat and near-forgotten crime opera, Johnny Cool is absolutely worth a look. The boys are all guilty, but the film is definitely not.
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