July 11, 2011
Johnny Cool (1963) is a curious cinematic oddity, an offbeat footnote in Rat Pack lore. Produced by Peter Lawford and featuring fellow Rat Packers Sammy Davis Jr. (who also sings the swinging theme song), Joey Bishop, and Henry Silva as the title character, the film was based on John McPartland’s novel The Kingdom of Johnny Cool. It was directed by William Asher, best known for the American International Pictures Beach Party series of teen comedies often starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. He was also married to actress Elizabeth Montgomery at the time, which may explain her presence in Johnny Cool.
The film is a character study of sorts about a cold-hearted assassin who grew up as a bandit named Salvatore Giordano (Silva) in Sicily during World War II. As a boy, he watched helplessly as his mother was gunned down by Nazi soldiers. Then, many years later, we see him get gunned down by Italian government soldiers – only his death was faked by a big-time Mafioso in Rome. He sends the newly dubbed Johnny Cool to the United States to kill all of the people who betrayed him. The crime boss reinvents Johnny completely: how he dresses, acts, talks, and so on. He also transforms the man into an efficient killing machine.
Johnny is tasked to bring down rival crime boss Vincenzo Santangelo played with suave menace by Telly Savalas. While impressing New York City mobsters, Johnny catches the eye of a high-end socialite named Darien Guinness (Montgomery) but he rebuffs her advances initially: “You don’t really care if you know me or not, do you?” she says, to which he replies, “Honey, I’m not buying.” She counters, “You couldn’t!” while he tells her, “Then it’s easy. Just forget it.” Undaunted, she pursues him and they begin a love affair.
Known mostly for playing villains and countless supporting roles, it’s great to see Henry Silva as the protagonist in a film for a change. Based on his work in Johnny Cool, it’s a shame he didn’t get more opportunities to do so. Silva carries himself with a cool confidence and looseness befitting the Rat Pack vibe of the film. He plays Johnny as a tough customer not above walking into a Mob-controlled racket and robbing them of their money while joking about it. Silva looks like he’s having a blast in this role.
For fans of Bewitched, this film may come as something of a surprise as we see Elizabeth Montgomery in a rare dramatic role, which she pulls off quite convincingly. Of particular note is harrowing scene where she’s beaten by a pair of overzealous police detectives (one played by Joe Turkel no less). She also has a nice scene with Silva where Darien bares her soul to Johnny.
Johnny Cool’s tale of single-minded vengeance features the systematic takedown of a crime syndicate with several audacious assassinations: one target is shot and killed in a crowded train station; another is killed in his swimming pool with a briefcase bomb; and Johnny dispatches another one in his office posing as a window washer. His mission is reminiscent of Lee Marvin’s in Point Blank (1967) only without the artsy experimentation. William Asher employs strictly meat and potatoes filmmaking much like what John Flynn would do later with The Outfit (1973) and ends on a surprisingly nihilistic note as Johnny is betrayed and doomed to a nasty fate worthy of a noir protagonist.