Johnny Cool: Come on in. It's Cool inside.
This week, I struck gold with Henry Silva.
Johnny Cool is the swingingest Rat Pack neo-noir ever filmed without the active participation of Frank and Dean. Peter Lawford co-produced, Joey Bishop begged the question, “Would you buy a used car from this son-of-a-gun?” and in addition to his mighty contributions to Billy May’s brassy big band soundtrack, Sammy Davis, Jr. dropped in as “Educated,” a diceologist for whom life is just a roll of the bones. (When Educated lets loose with a 6 and a 5, the craps dealer calls “Eyo-eleven.”) Other pallys along for the ride include Sinatra acolytes Brad Dexter, Hank Henry, and Steve Peck, Dino’s killer in Some Came Running. There’s even a layover at Frank’s pet nightclub, Jilly’s.
Henry Silva, one of the original Ocean’s 11, remained a loyal Rat-Packer to the end, appearing in Contract on Cherry Street and Mr. Sinatra’s big-screen swan song, Cannonball Run II. Born of Sicilian and Spanish descent, the grimacing tough guy was frequently assigned the role of Asians. His big breakthrough came as “Chink” in Budd Boetticher’s otherwise admirable The Tall T. Fox later cast him as Mr. Moto and who will ever forget Chunjin, the karate-chopping houseboy in The Manchurian Candidate?
Johnny Cool afforded Silva his first shot at opening a picture. Mind you, Silva didn’t do it alone. Half of the film’s appeal is its glittering array of guest stars, many of whom succumb to death by cameo. Be on the lookout for Jim Backus (listen carefully for a quick, Magoo-like chortle), funnyman Mort Sahl (the nice guy who finishes last), Telly Savalas (spit-screaming into a speakerphone as if to compensate for the long distance), professional hiss-inducer Douglass Dumbille, some dame getting the best of John McGiver, and Elisha Cook, Jr. as the gunsel. Listen as Gregory Morton, the amphetamine-amped conductor from Bye Bye Birdie who later did a stretch in Synanon, puts the “Ooo!” in “Cool.” And for those of you in the crowd on a first-name basis with their neighborhood barkeep, allow me to introduce you to an army of Hollywood mixologist royalty: tending bar are George Cisar, Matty Jordan, Ray Kellogg, and Cosmo Sardo, Bonanza’s tavern-keeper and hairstylist to the stars.
Johnny Cool opens in Sicily, 1943. An eagle-eye shot shakily observes Salvatore Giordano’s (Michael Davis) mother being chased on foot by a Nazi on wheels. Before the motorcycling goon has a chance to kill her (or worse), young Giordano is by his side pulling the pin on a grenade dangling from the drooling ape’s utility belt. His ploy works — panicked stormtroopers blow up real good — but if it’s not one Nazi, it’s another. A shot rings out and mom hits the gravel. Lucky for Giordano, an anonymous fascist-fighter arrives on scene in time to mow down the mother-snuffing jerry and save her boy.
Giordano was born with a calloused heart. Mismatched studio inserts of the contemplative young lad can’t distract from Giordano’s choice: should he bid a final farewell to his motionless mother, or collect the blasted soldier’s machine gun and apply for a career in wholesale slaughter, doing the bidding of an international revenge killer? Giordano turns glacial and grabs for the gun. Hell, it’s not as though hugging her corpse is going to bring mom back.
Years later, the career-trajectory of hitman Salvatore Giordano’s (Silva) is forever altered when outcast Sicilian mafioso Johnny Colini (Marc Lawrence) hand picks him to be his successor. Colini admires his handiwork, and knows how to put his “particular kind of violence” to best use. With the name on Giordano’s birth certificate amended to “Johnny Cool,” the eponymous iceman travels Stateside and embarks on a vengeful killing spree, along the way massacring a slew of Hollywood notables masquerading as the underworld figures who once plotted against his Colini.
William Asher received the director’s credit, but it was cinematographer Sam Leavitt who called the shots. Leavitt had by then mastered the art of noir cinematography, earning acclaim on such shadowy cult items as The Man with the Golden Arm, The Crimson Kimono, and Cape Fear. Asher’s career encompassed over 100 episodes of I Love Lucy, six Frankie & Annette “Beach” blowouts, and half the episodes of Bewitched. (It was on the set of Johnny Cool that Asher met his future ex-wife, Elizabeth Montgomery.) Earthworms move faster than his transition shots. (An optical zoom in on Giodano’s face is followed by an interminable dissolve to indicate a passage of time. Twice!) And is it me, or was the shot taken from Johnny’s POV a poor person’s ripoff of Buddy Love’s entry into the Purple Pit in The Nutty Professor?
J.C. ‘s love interest is pretty society plaything Dare Guiness (Elizabeth Montgomery). With one speaking role and dozens of TV appearances to her credit, this was to be Montgomery’s big screen unveiling. But rather than creating a character, Montgomery dutifully follows the track of the screenplay. As a femme fatale, Dare has all the mental acumen of a dimmer switch. And of all the film’s players, the only woman in the bunch is treated with the most disregard. Just one day after being gang-raped by a pair of sicarios posing as cops, Dare is literally begging Johnny to take her to bed. Two days in his company, and she’s ready to walk down the aisle. On the third day, she witnesses the depths of Cool’s cruelty, and it’s off to a friend’s yacht to drink and dance the night away. Most damning of all, the film spends more time on Dare’s downfall than Johnny’s.
Whatever variation and stylistic invention there is can be traced back to John McPartland’s book — and the then-novel levels of cruelty that were contained within its pages and, remarkably, allowed to be shown on screen at the time. With Dare’s assailants cornered, the coolest mohel in the land picks up a knife, and for the first time anywhere, performs a 2 for 1 rotational castration. The “dead-inside” look that crosses Silva’s face deserves at least a couple of rewinds. Ditto the fake beards, which were created by applying ample amounts of spirit gum to the actor’s cheeks and then rolling them face down on a barbershop floor.
On the up side, women profit from the deaths of both John McGiver and Brad Dexter. And in his own thick-headed way, Johnny cared about Dare. Once again, ‘twas beauty that killed Colini, the one-man army fingered by a skirt. I had to laugh when Skull Island survivor Robert Armstrong popped up. It’s hard to believe he had an easier time bringing down Johnny Cool than he did King Kong.