Friday, July 22, 2016

Johnny Angel (1945)

Johnny Angel is an interesting little 1945 RKO film noir.

Johnny Angel (George Raft) is a sea captain, like his father. When he finds his father’s ship, the Emmaline Quincy, drifting at sea in the Gulf of Mexico, with its cargo intact but the crew (including his father) nowhere to be found, he is determined to find out what has happened. 

He puts a salvage crew aboard the Emmaline Quincy. After it docks in New Orleans a mysterious French girl is seen leaving the ship - this girl is Johnny’s only clue to the mystery. First he has to find her, then having found her he has to keep her alive. Neither task will be easy.

Both Johnny and his father worked for the Gustafson Line, run by the pudgy and ineffectual George Gustafson (invariably referred to as Gusty). In reality it’s Gusty’s old nurse Miss Drumm (Margaret Wycherly), now his secretary, who runs the line. Between them Miss Drumm and Gusty’s wife Lilah (Claire Trevor) run Gusty. Gusty is the kind of man who is destined to be run by women.

Lilah is two-timing Gusty with night-club owner and gangster Sam Jewell (Lowell Gilmore) but she also has her sights set on Johnny. Lilah likes men but she also likes money. She can’t decide which she likes most.

The mystery which is slowly unravelled is rather complex. Suffice to say that gold is involved. Lots of gold. Enough gold to drive men (or women) to murder, or even more than one murder.

This movie is a relatively rare example of a film noir with a flashback and voice-over narration from the point of view of a female character. 

Steve Fisher’s screenplay hits most of the right noir notes. Edwin L. Marin was a competent director and a year later would direct George Raft in another excellent film noir, Nocturne. Marin captures the noir mood effectively in Johnny Angel, with some help from cinematographer Harry J. Wild (who also worked on Nocturne and in fact shot many notable noir films).

George Raft gives an excellent performance as the obsessed son investigating the mystery involving his father. Raft was always a very convincing heavy but he could be equally effective in more sympathetic roles. He was best of all when he got to combine the two tendencies as he does here. Johnny Angel is a very tough guy who never takes a backward step from any man but he’s also a very nice guy. I suspect that it was Raft’s sublime confidence in his own macho qualities (he was a very tough guy in real life) that allowed him to switch effortlessly from tough to gentleness and charm.

The rest of the cast is very strong. Claire Trevor does her femme fatale bit as the wife of the owner of the shopping line – she is very much in love with his money, with him not so much. It’s the sort of thing she always did extremely well. 

Signe Hasso (who was Swedish and whose slight accent is clearly and unsurprisingly Swedish) plays the enigmatic French girl and she does an effective job. Hoagy Carmichael (better known of course as a composer) is Celestial, a cab driver with a knack for being around when interesting things are happening. Naturally he also gets a chance to sing. He’s a likeable and amusing (and rather charmingly eccentric) foil for the very serious Johnny Angel. Marvin Miller is all thwarted ambition and weakness as the milksop owner of the Gustafson Line.  

The nautical background and the New Orleans settings give the film a distinctive and attractive flavour, and it’s a fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining movie.  It’s one of those lesser known noirs that is well worth seeking out. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Hoagy Carmichael sings,"Memphis in June". Not a great song but his relaxed singing and playing are irresistible.