Kim Newman on... Johnny Cool

RT Obscura 4: Kim gets Cool.

RT Obscura with Kim Newman

RT Obscura, a new bi-weekly column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the Rotten Tomatoes archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his fourth column, Kim plumbs the seedy underbelly of cinema to kick it with 1963's Johnny Cool.

This 1963 crime drama doesn't quite gel, but has a lot going for it: especially the once-in-a-lifetime teaming of Henry Silva (The Manchurian Candidate), in one of his rare top-billed roles, and Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched), as a complex 1960s Daisy Buchanan.  It also delivers an amazing variety of bit players as criminal types -- Telly Savalas, Marc Lawrence, Jim Backus, Elisha Cook, John Dierkes, Mort Sahl, John McGiver, Brad Dexter, Richard Anderson and Joe Turkel.  Sadly, the storyline, derived from John McPartland's novel, is bloated. 

In WWII, a young Sicilian goatherd kills a German who is raping his mother by pulling the pin on the grenade attached to the soldier's belt.  Suddenly orphaned by the Nazis, the boy is adopted by none other than famous brigand Salvatore Giuliano.  Cut to years later, young Giordano (Silva, in beard and sunglasses) is a respected local bandit, beloved by all except the cops and the army.  In an elaborate helicopter raid, the authorities fake Giordano's death so he can be turned over to a Lucky Luciano-like gangster in exile (Lawrence) who dresses like a monk.  Trained and shaved, Giordano takes the name (Johnny Collino) and nickname (Johnny Cool) of his patron and turns up in America with instructions to assassinate the men currently running Collino's mob, whom the boss blames for his deportation.

As Johnny goes through the business of taunting and killing, the blank-faced, cold-hearted killer gets mixed up with Dare (Montgomery), a brittle divorceť whose semi-masochist attraction to Johnny pays off as she is raped by a couple of bogus cops he promptly stabs in the very lower abdomen.  Dare, dragged along on his killing campaign, is predictably shocked by police interest and, nearly witnessing a swimming pool bombing, betrays Johnny to his enemies, who have him strait-jacketed and promise elaborate torture.

It's a cruel movie, with many murder scenes as gangsters get theirs in precedent-setting ways (machine-gunned from a window-cleaner's platform outside a high-rise office, karate-chopped senseless, trussed up and left to throttle).  The attempts at making the homicidal protagonist a tragic figure don't really work until he is forced to realise Collino is just using him as 'a messenger boy of death' and has no intention of turning over his outfit to the new boy.

Directed by William Asher, best known for his many Beach Party musicals (also Montgomery's husband), it's one of several odd credits (Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker) on his otherwise whitebread resume.  Too mired in conventional filmmaking to compete with Sam Fuller's Underworld USA, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly or John Boorman's Point Blank, Johnny Cool does dip in the same pool with those extraordinary genre-busters.  Made in 1963, it has a feel for gangster luxuries: finned cars, beauty queens strewn around the furniture, smart service at chic restaurants, faux-antique or moderne decor, button men who pose as paramedics, discreet private hospitals for torture, guns up sleeves, sports jackets and (most of all) fabulously stylish sunglasses.  Produced by Rat Pack hanger-on Peter Lawford, it also boasts a catchy theme song from Sammy Davis Jr, who pops up in the film as 'Educated', a high-roller at the craps tables.

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