Johnny Eager: Characters Welcome
Johnny Eager tells the story of a slick ex-con who works as a taxicab driver to mask his criminal activities. Standing in the way of Eager’s project is his longtime nemesis, the local district attorney, who just happens to be the stepfather of a young sociology student who falls for Johnny in a big way.
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, this polished MGM noir features a tightly woven story and great lines (including one of my favorite monologues in all of noir – see below), but best of all, it offers a surfeit of memorable, well-drawn characters, starting with…
Johnny Eager (Robert Taylor): He was hard, clever, and deadly. He not only didn’t suffer fools gladly, he didn’t suffer them at all. This was one guy that you didn’t want to cross – he had a thoroughly pleasant façade, but he could be cold as frozen steel underneath. Still, quiet as it was kept, below that cold steel lurked a heart of gold.
Favorite quote: “Listen – I’m gonna get you told once and for all and then I want you to stop running me through the strainer or analyzin’ me or whatever you call it. You’re always telling me I don’t understand something or other – well you’re the guy that doesn’t understand because you’re a sucker, and a sucker never understands a smart guy. If you weren’t a chump for booze you’d probably be a chump for some dame – yeah, decent and pure about it, too, until she walked off with some bald-headed bankroll and sent you back on the booze again. And you’re the guy that has pals, too. Give your best pal your last fifty bucks, wouldn’t you? Well, he’s already a dead duck or he wouldn’t need the fifty, and after he’s spent it, you’re both strictly from hunger. So what? Sure, the sucker’s all give me sour looks – the minute they stop I’m worried, see, because then I know I’m not on my toes. And that’s where I’m stayin’. Ready to hit the first guy that’s fool enough to try and cross me in the first place.”
Jeff Hartnett (Van Heflin): As described by another character, he was “full of gin and big words.” Intelligent and well-read, Jeff was Johnny’s faithful, Shakespeare-quoting sidekick. But instead of putting his intellect to good use, he spent most of his time searching for his conscience in the bottom of a bottle. But he was the most loyal friend a guy could have, as he proved time and again to Johnny.
Favorite quote: “You can feel sorry for someone you don’t like if you’ve got a heart or soul or decency.”
Lisbeth Bard (Lana Turner): Talk about love at first sight – from the moment she saw Johnny, she was hooked. Despite her youth and naivete, she displayed a strength of character uncommon in one so young and sheltered. (Plus, she was really easy on the eyes.)
Favorite quote: “Don’t lie to me, Mr. Eager.”
John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold): The resident D.A., this guy was all threats and bluster and righteous anger. But he had an Achilles heel – his weakness was his love for his stepdaughter, Lisbeth. He was even willing to break the law if he thought it could save her.
Favorite quote: “I called you down here to tell you one thing. And I’m going to make it short and sweet. Don’t go near my daughter again. Don’t try to see her. Don’t write her and don’t phone her. Now get out!” (Closely followed by: “You couldn’t stop being a thief any more than a weasel could stop sucking chicken blood.” Whoa!)
Garnet (Patricia Dane): Johnny’s first girlfriend, Garnet (LOVE that name) tried mightily to be a hard case, but she was really a rather tragic figure – she was so in love with Johnny, and he treated her like a piece of furniture most of the time. Even when she knew in her heart that he’d found someone else, she still only wanted him to tell her he loved her (no matter how gruff or insincere he sounded), and she was satisfied.
Favorite quote: “Johnny, is this the blow-off? If that’s what it is, don’t lie to me, Johnny. I know there’s another girl, I could tell it the minute I saw that look on your face this morning. I’ve seen it there often enough.”
These are the main characters, but the minor characters make their mark as well, like the members of Johnny’s crew: the always loyal Marco (Charles Dingle), the duplicitous Julio (Paul Stewart), and the traitorous Lew Rankin (Barry Nelson). Check ‘em all out on November 17th when Johnny Eager airs on TCM. It’s good stuff!