Noir Nook: Two Fab Film Noirs
In last month’s column, I offered up the first in a series of columns on low-budget, B-level films noir that nobody ever talks about. This time around, I’m taking a look at films that are not quite in the “I’ve-never-even-heard-of-this-movie” category, but they also aren’t the first noirs that come to mind when you think of the best of the era. I’m shining the spotlight on two of these noirs that are first-rate and appreciated by many, but don’t often get the raves afforded to the better-known features.
1. Johnny Eager (1941)
This glossy MGM noir stars Robert Taylor in the title role of a slick ex-con who appears to have gone straight, by way of his job as a taxicab driver, but who’s really just up to his old tricks. He’s actually the top man in a gambling syndicate who’s working behind the scenes to open a dog track, and coolly bulldozing anyone who gets in his way. That includes stone-hearted District Attorney John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold), whose sociology student daughter Lisbeth (Lana Turner) meets and falls hard for Johnny. When Farrell files an injunction to stop Johnny’s dog track plans, Johnny craftily uses Lisbeth as ammunition in his war against the D.A.
Others in the story include Johnny’s right-hand man, Jeff Hartnett (Van Heflin, in an Oscar-winning role), characterized by his addiction to alcohol, his high level of intelligence, and his almost reluctant devotion to Johnny; Julio (Paul Stewart with an Italian accent), one of Johnny’s underlings, who proves to be more trouble than he’s worth; and Johnny’s long-suffering girlfriend Garnet (Patricia Dane), who gets the heave-ho when Johnny discovers that Lisbeth is more to him than just a means to an end.
Trivia tidbit: The director of the film was Mervyn LeRoy, who helmed nearly 80 films – including such well-known features as Gold Diggers of 1933, Random Harvest, and Mister Roberts – but Johnny Eager was his only noir.
2. Sudden Fear (1952)
This film has long held a special place in my heart – the first time I saw it was at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, and I instantly fell in love. It stars Joan Crawford as wealthy playwright Myra Hudson and Jack Palance as Lester Blane, the stage actor with whom she falls in love and marries. For a time, the union appears to be idyllic – Myra walks around with perpetual stars in her eyes and Lester certainly seems devoted enough. That is, until he runs into his old flame Irene, played by Gloria Grahame. (Not that you can blame him. Who could resist Gloria Grahame?)
Once Lester and Irene reconnect, all marital bets are off, and things take a turn for the worse when Lester discovers (he thinks) that Myra plans to leave him a mere pittance in her will. So what’s the solution? Kill Myra, of course! But Lester and Irene didn’t reckon on one little stumbling block to their best-laid plans: Myra herself.
Trivia tidbit: Sudden Fear marked the big-screen debut of Touch Conners – who later changed his name to Mike Connors and was best known for the starring role in the popular television series Mannix. (Incidentally, Connors lived until January 2017, when he passed at the age of 91.)
Stay tuned for more fab films noir in future columns!
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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