Johnny Eager (played by Robert Taylor) earns his living as a cab driver by day but, on a closer look, he’s a gangster by night who talks to everyone (mostly dames) with a vaguely disdainful chivalry, even to his parole officer Verne. Two sociology students, Lisbeth Bard (played by a sumptuous Lana Turner) and her friend visit Verne while they are doing research for a sociology study; Lisbeth gets especially interested in the “rehabilitated” ex-con Johnny Eager. At first sight, she’s surprised by Johnny’s elegant demeanor and good looks. Sadly, Lisbeth’s father turns out to be District Attorney John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold), the same man who sent Johnny to jail a few months earlier.
Lisbeth is oblivious to the fact Johnny’s leaving a double life and is involved in an operation to reopen the Algonquin dog track – which Lisbeth’s father has threatened with closure. Johnny and Lisbeth continue their clandestine affair behind her fiancé’s back while Farrell insists on unmasking the evil nature percolating beneath Eager’s suave façade.
As if there were not enough shady characters in town who would like to give Eager a .38 lead dose, a rival gang manages to enlist Eager’s henchman Lew Rankin in a twist of betrayal. During the early ’40s the United States had experienced a series of social changes that reflected on the noir subgenre, invoking a more pessimistic portrait than the previous nostalgic gangster pictures from 1930s. Johnny Eager‘s director Mervyn LeRoy (who had filmed top-notch crime dramas as Little Caesar, Five Star Final, Three on a Match, or Hard to Handle) achieves a superior tale of redemption enhanced by Harold Rosson’s shimmering lighting.
Robert Taylor specifically asked to play the cold-blooded hood in the title role, since he was very impressed by the script, based on a short story by James Edward Grant and John Lee Mahin’s screenplay. Van Heflin plays Johnny’s only real friend, an alcoholic writer who spouts philosophical ramblings, comparing Lisbeth with Cyrano de Bergerac’s Roxane. Although Van Heflin won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his poignant performance as Jeff Hartnett, -a tormented drunkard who has established a suspiciously intimate bond with Johnny- Robert Taylor’s biographer Charles Tranberg contends ‘this is Taylor’s picture.’
One of the reasons Taylor impacts so deeply on the viewer is the irresistible blend Johnny’s character projects of a misogynist emotional naïvety (showed in his scenes with moll Garnet, played by Patricia Dane) and paradoxically a harrowing need to decipher the meaning of true love (exposed in his revealing interaction with prior girlfriend Mae Blythe). Mae (Glenda Farrell) asks him a favor for old times’ sake, that is Johnny use his influences to relocate her husband -policeman Joe Aganovsky- back to his old precinct. Then Johnny remembers when Mae was his sweetheart in Miami and she was the only dame he’d slug a man over. Seconds later, Johnny’s heart seems to stop in cold blood and he denies her help, in realising Aganovsky is the Agent 711 (a honest cop who was transferred because he would not accept any bribe from the rackets).
“You don’t even know what I’m talking about”, are Mae’s heartbreaking last words to Johnny, when he sardonically needles her about love and old times. These interludes infuse the film’s tone with a relentless pace until the moment we’ll end up wondering about Johnny’s doomed destiny. Also, Mae’s scene will eventually manifest its value of justice poetic at the last minute.
Precisely, despite of the melodramatic resonance of Taylor’s scenes shared with Turner and Van Heflin, I consider Johnny’s rencounter with Mae Blythe the best act in the film. Robert Taylor and Glenda Farrell were habitués in Mervyn LeRoy’s films: Glenda, beside having played the female lead in Little Caesar, had appeared in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Heat Lightning, Hi Nellie! and Three on a Match. Robert Taylor, in addition to Johnny Eager, would work with LeRoy in Escape, Waterloo Bridge, and Quo Vadis.
On December 8, 1941 United States declared war upon Japan in response to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Johnny Eager was released in theaters on December 9, 1941. As Charles Tranberg remarks, Robert Taylor made a contribution to the war effort by donating his monoplane, which was given to the Los Angeles Sheriffs Air Squadron in 1942. The war accelerated the longstanding trend in social stigma of illicit romances, they were nonetheless validated on-screen.
Robert Taylor (despite of having being labeled in his early career as a matinée idol) proves in Johnny Eager he could play perfectly an obscure racketeer, an outlaw who continues to pull off tricks even against his own integrity, and whose aspirations weren’t too different from his film audience’s. The film, a romantic MGM noir thankfully free of the ambiguous morality through which modern cinema tries to justify or condemn a defiant character, flows in a cynical (at times sentimental) fashion, and in the end we just want Johnny redeemed in the dark yet reluctant streets although his individuality definitively suffers for it.
As the film advertising claimed, “T’N’T burn up the screen in a sizzling romance.” And in a case of life imitating art, a real-life attraction lit between and between Taylor and Turner (the mere sound of Lana’s voice saying “good morning” made Taylor “melt”) while Johnny & Lisbeth sizzled on the screen.