Thursday, March 11, 2010

Johnny One-Eye (Benedict Bogeaus/United Artists, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The sort of film I wanted last night was a dark, noir-ish thriller and I thought I’d found it in Johnny One-Eye, a 1950 production by Benedict Bogeaus for United Artists with a cast that sounded like the over-the-hill gang rides again — the stars are Pat O’Brien and Wayne Morris, the down-cast list includes two other survivors from the 1930’s Warners contract list (Lyle Talbot and Donald Woods) and even the leading lady is Warners vet Dolores Moran, who was introduced in the trailer for the 1945 To Have and Have Not as one of the two exciting new personalities being introduced to moviegoers in that film. Unfortunately, she was totally overshadowed by the other exciting new personality introduced in that film, Lauren Bacall. (Maybe if she’d been the one who got to marry its star … )

Johnny One-Eye was based on a story by Damon Runyon (who had died in 1946, four years before this film was made, and a quick search of the Internet failed to reveal when he wrote it, though it was included in a 1944 book called Runyon a la Carte. It seems a bit dated in this context, even though the film includes brief references to World War II. With a solidly professional (though hardly inspired) cast and some formidable talent behind the cameras as well — the director was atmospheric “B”-master Robert Florey, the production designer is Van Nest Polglase (long-time head of the RKO art department until, according to director Allan Dwan, he drank himself out of that position and Bogeaus rescued him and gave him work) and there’s a special effects credit to Lee Zavitz, the man who burned down Atlanta (or at least all the standing sets on the Selznick International backlot) for Gone With the WindJohnny One-Eye had the potential to be a great noir were it not for the sentimentality Runyon built into his story.

It’s basically half film noir and half sentimental tear-jerker, though it begins with a scene whose matter-of-fact viciousness and cold-heartedness promises a much better (and more cynical) movie: a voiceover narration from O’Brien’s character, saddled with the otherwise incomprehensible Runyonesque name “Martin Martin,” tells how he and his partner in con-artistry, Dane Cory (Wayne Morris), caught a man who had $50,000 of “their” money, a Norwegian on a ship, whom they cornered, shot and stole “their” money from, dumping his body into the sea. The story flash-forwards six years and Martin is now a respected political leader, entertaining the top men in the city’s business and political hierarchies at his lavish apartment and supplying them with women (though their actual purpose is so veiled at first one wonders why Martin thinks he needs B-girls for a party at his home!). Martin’s comfortable life is disrupted by a British-accented scumbag named Ambrose (Lawrence Cregar — I don’t know if he was any relation to Laird, but he’s an imposing screen presence and it’s surprising and disappointing that he only got to be in two other movies, Undercover Girl and the Rommel biopic The Desert Fox, in which he was a German guard) who mentions that Martin is under investigation by the New York district attorney and that Cory is planning to testify against him before the grand jury, which will surely implicate him in the murder we saw at the beginning.

Cory has also done well for himself, though he’s blowing a lot of the money he made on a musical in which he plans to star his “protégé” (don’t you just love these Production Code euphemisms?), Lily White (Dolores Moran) — though Cory doesn’t get anywhere nearly as much companionship from his “protégé” as he expects because she’s a single mom and her daughter Elsie (Gayle Reed) seems always to be around whenever Cory wants payback for all the money he’s lavishing on Lily— and if it isn’t Elsie that’s irritating him, it’s her dog Skipper, whom he hates so much he insists that the kid get rid of the dog. (A cute little girl, a cute little dog and a wicked stepfather who hates them both — can you say “milking it”?) Martin finds out Cory’s address and goes to confront him and possibly kill him — only Cory has a bodyguard with him and so it’s two against one, Martin is badly wounded in the shoulder (this is shown against a real New York night scene as the backdrop, and I was impressed when I saw the marquee for the jazz club Bop City behind the action in this scene) and he ends up in a ratty room somewhere, half-lit in Lucien Andriot’s vivid noir cinematography — when he’s re-linked to Cory and the Whites after Elsie’s dog Skipper runs across him and Martin takes him in, makes him his pet and calls him “Johnny One-Eye” because the dog has an infection in one eye. Elsie meets Martin and tells him her dog’s real name, but by then “Johnny One-Eye” has stuck, and Elsie either genuinely believes or pretends to believe that Martin is Santa Claus despite his lack of a red suit, a white beard or any of the other conventional movie indicia of “Santaicity.”

The movie — like Runyon’s fiction in general (Dwight Macdonald called his style “folkery-fakery” and said if you wanted tough stories about the American demi-monde of the inter-war years, told in the vernacular, you should be reading Ring Lardner instead) — oscillates so annoyingly between tough, no-nonsense noir and sentimental claptrap it’s unnerving whenever Florey and screenwriter Richard H. Landau switch back and forth between them. It doesn’t help that child actress Gayle Reed plays Elsie as a virtual Shirley Temple clone (though at least, blessedly, she doesn’t sing), and one can’t help but remember that the 1934 film Little Miss Marker, also based on a Damon Runyon story and also alternating between melodrama and tear-jerking, was a major film in establishing the stardom of the original Shirley Temple.

It also doesn’t help that Pat O’Brien simply wasn’t a “dark” enough actor to put over the character’s moral ambiguity (imagine this film with another Warners refugee, Humphrey Bogart, in the role!) — as it is the most interesting performances come from the usually stupid Wayne Morris as Cory, Lawrence Cregar as Ambrose and Donald Woods (also a man who was generally boring in his days at Warners — his most famous credit is as James Cagney’s too-good-to-be-true brother in The Public Enemy) in a marvelous little turn as a pet store owner who’s also an amateur vet and had ambitions to be a doctor for humans but washed out of medical school, then served in a medical corps in the war and swiped a full set of surgical instruments, with which he removes the bullets from O’Brien’s shoulder but not before gangrene has set in. He also tells O’Brien that Skipper a.k.a. Johnny One-Eye is fatally ill — and it’s hard to tell whether the counterpoint of the doom of the man and the doom of the dog works as the powerful irony intended or is just silly.

That unnerving combination of intensity and banality runs throughout this entire film, until the final shootout in which Martin and Cory kill each other (and Pat O’Brien gets a marvelously posed death scene in which he seems to be copying Max Schreck’s expiration in the 1922 Murnau Nosferatu, only he doesn’t supernaturally disappear) and Lily (who’s acted surprisingly well — anyone who knew Dolores Moran only from her inept attempt to channel Ingrid Bergman’s Casablanca role in To Have and Have Not has a treat in store in this film!) has the hard task of breaking it to her daughter that her dog is doomed but Santa Claus, who was not Martin Martin, will bring her a new one next Christmas. (Yes, it’s banal as it sounds.) Charles and I were watching a print of Johnny One-Eye from an Alpha Video DVD, and it was prone to the worst vicissitudes of public-domain material — a blurry image quality, scenes that came off even darker than the noir images Florey and Andriot intended, and an annoying buzz and distortion in the soundtrack (Alpha Video has released movies two decades older than this one that survived in better quality!), but somehow I doubt even a pristine print in perfect sound would solve the conceptual and artistic defects of this maddeningly flawed but still interesting movie.