Film Noir

Film criticism for movie fans who want to think again about their cine thrills.



Johnny Cool, 1963, USA, Director William Asher

The man backed himself.  Give the guy credit for that.  But that was his problem, man.  Johnny Cool was a crap player, apart from when he was killing people, of course, and I never saw a dice player that lasted long.  You want to know the first lesson I learned behind a poker hand?  You can only back yourself for so long, man.  You don’t get far in this life if you don’t listen to the cards.  Johnny Cool was tough and smart.  He bumped off four protected guys in one day, right here in Vegas.  Johnny Cool blows up this guy in the middle of his own swimming pool.  And the kids are watching.  That is a heavy deal, that is what I call raising the ante.  That is not listening to the cards.  Johnny Cool was using exploding suitcases like depth charges.   The guy was tough and smart, so tough and smart he thought he could play an inside straight.  And what does Mr Hoyle say about inside straights.  That’s right, it’s a no no, man.  Always and always play the odds and listen to the cards.  The bluff comes when you know the stars are in line.  It happens because it has to some time but you don’t chase it.  You keep your eyes open, man.  Walk around the tables here in the Sands and what you see, what excites the tourists are the high rollers.  The guys with a wad who wouldn’t know the difference between an inside straight and a three of a kind but for a night have struck lucky.  But that’s what people want to see.  A guy on a roll who isn’t listening to anything other than himself. 

I said goodbye to the dice a long time ago.  I quit the same night that Johnny Cool backed me with twelve thousand dollars.  I’m not an excitable man.  You can’t be in this business without knowing how to stay calm but I sweated that night, man, especially when Johnny Cool put a gun at the side of my head and said roll again.  The weirdest thing was he was being friendly.  Johnny Cool was showing how he believed in me.  These days I’m strictly a poker man, and I raise my own stakes.    It’s not so easy keeping your head down when you’re a not so tall one eyed Jewish black brother but I don’t need to stroll like some.  I play Texas Hold ‘Em because that’s the only damned poker game in Vegas.  The worst thing that ever happened to poker was Texas Hold ‘Em but, what do you say, you have to go with the flow.  I am a quiet one down and four up man but I can play any kind of stud poker.  You just have to know when to hold and when to fold.  And that was one lesson poor Johnny Cool never did understand.

Where did he get his handle from?  Follow this, man, watch the dealer.   There were two Johnny Cools.  The original was a seriously loaded Italian hood from Chicago called Johnny Colini but nicknamed Johnny Cool.  The FBI kicked him out of the country.  They reckoned the lack of his presence on American soil might do something about organised crime.  Some hope, man.  Another crew moved in on his action or mostly the same crew but with a different head honcho called Vince Santeangelo.   The original Johnny Colini needed someone to get even with the guys back in the States.  A guy with sense would have left the table and spent the rest of his days enjoying the good life and sunshine in Italy.  But that’s high rollers for you.  They have to back themselves until the very end.  The problem was that the guys back home held all the aces.  So Chicago Johnny Cool, now in Italy, slides his own ace below the deck.  He finds this Sicilian bandit that lives in the mountains and is so tough the police can only stand by and admire and whistle.  This bandit is called Salvatore Giordano, and all the village folk love him because he fought the fascists and spits in the eye of just about everyone that wears a uniform.  The story is that Salvatore killed a soldier that attempted to rape his mother.  After that and a few dead fascists, Salvatore became a man of the people.  Well, the only person that Johnny Cool, the original, looked after was called Johnny Colini.  Colini picked Salvatore for one reason only.  He picked the toughest guy in the neighbourhood.

The second Johnny Cool goes along with the first Johnny Cool because, if he didn’t, the first Johnny Cool would hand the second Johnny Cool over to the cops.  Before Colini arrived with his helicopter to lift Salvatore out of the Sicilian mountains the cards had been kind to Salvatore Giordano.  The man was carrying a really heavy wad.  The last thing that Giordano needed was someone to come along and fold his hand but life is like that.  Any poker player can tell you, man.  There is nothing worse than having a good hand, a full house, four of a kind, a running flush or something and someone comes along and folds the hand before you make the final bet and pick up the pot.  It’s happened to us all.  I once was dealt a running flush just before an earthquake arrived.  And you know what sticks in my throat?  It’s people telling me I was lucky to get out of the place alive. 

Forget the earthquake, let it rumble.   Back in Italy the first Johnny Cool teaches the second the American language, puts him in smart suits and gives number two the low down on what is happening back in the States.  Johnny Cool two now knows the people that need to be taken out the game and what the game is that all these people are playing.  This is why the new Johnny Cool arrives in Vegas.  He stayed right here in the Sands.  I remember him but no one else took much notice of the guy.  He played a few crap games and carried a wad of cash but so what.  The real action starts when he goes to New York.  Johnny Cool number two killed important people.  He had inside information from Johnny Cool one and, man, he must have thought he was dealing from the bottom of the deck and had to win.  The problem was he was in a game where everyone had information.  They were all dealing from the bottom of the deck.  It’s not easy, man, you don’t have an edge.  You’re just backing yourself and even the cards are confused.

After the mayhem in the Big Apple our Johnny Cool two comes to Vegas and creates more of the same.  Imagine, blowing up Lennart Crandall in the middle of his own swimming pool.  Crandall was a handy swimmer.  He practised every day.  The poor guy may have been in bits when he died but at least he came to the surface.  The tale is that Johnny Cool two considered Crandall to be mission accomplished and was on his way back to sunny Italy, job done.  Maybe Johnny Cool two was bored with killing Americans and, as it happened, he had met one he rather liked, a good looking dame called Darien Guinness.  No, she was loaded but not that rich, no connection with the booze people.   Johnny Cool one wanted number two to take over the USA business on behalf of number one but according to this dame with the name like the black beer, the one American favoured by Johnny Cool two, the pair of them were supposed to be heading to the Sicilian Hills to enjoy the quiet life.

Now I’ve got nothing against dames, and there are a few that have liked me.   But I don’t kid myself.  Any dame is an inside straight, cards that always promise more than they can deliver.   But just like an inside straight looks great when it is in your hand, it’s the same with a dame.  If you win, there is nothing better but you have to think of the odds.  

Darien liked Johnny Cool.  Two of Vince Santangelo’s men had roughed up the dame, well more than that, and Johnny Cool number two had made sure they paid big style.  There are no suspended sentences in the Sicilian mountains, man, you know what I mean.   Something about Johnny Cool attracted this Darien Guinness.  She said he was the only man that had never told her lies and she knew he was honest because what he told her was so terrible.  But when she read about how the two kids had seen their old man Lennart Crandall dive out of the water instead of in, well, the dame knew although it had been fun with Johnny Cool the time had come to fold the cards.  

Johnny and Darien were supposed to meet in some Italian restaurant in New York but Darien needed to call it quits and the best way she knew was to tell the hoods.  They were waiting for Johnny Cool.  Darien Guiness confessed to the cops that she had driven the car that Johnny used before he scattered Crandall over the pool.  The babe looked sweet in court, and the judge gave Darien a suspended sentence providing she went for psychiatric treatment.  The defence lawyer claimed the woman was a victim, and maybe she was because these days she works with children and raises money to support those places where drunks dry out.  The rest you must have heard.  Johnny Cool number one died in bed, not asleep I heard, something to do with a girl half his age.  Johnny Cool number two had a hard time with the number of hoods waiting for him but he waited for the right cards to fall, one of those hands when the stars aligned, and somehow he got out of there.  Johnny Cool number one, who at the point was still breathing, managed to get his boy out of the States.  Johnny Cool number two doesn’t get around much these days I heard but he is out there, somewhere in the Sicily mountains and with the people he cares about.   No more inside straights for Salvatore Giordano, thank God.

Howard Jackson is sick at the moment which is why there is not a TOUGH GUYS IN THE ROOM blog this week. Those blogs will resume when he recovers his health.

Meanwhile enjoy a blast from the past and a blog from the series OFFENDED SHADOWS. The JOHNNY COOL blog was chosen because the lead actor Henry Silva has recently died. He was 95 years old.

The latest book from Howard Jackson, LONG AFTER THIS, is available here.



Touch Of Evil, 1958, USA, Director Orson Welles

Damned right I blame Hank Quinlan for what happened down there in Los Robles but not as much as I once did.  Miguel had wanted me to get help from a psychiatrist or a counsellor or someone.  I said no thanks and that I’d beat the blues on my own, thank you.  But what happened down in Los Robles back in ‘56 still gives me nightmares.  I just don’t hate Hank Quinlan like I used to and I’ve learned to live with the nightmares.  I hate them all for what happened.  And when I say all I include me.  God it was awful.  The night Miguel and me arrived in Los Robles I was accosted by this Mexican hood.  He was a handsome guy, and I called him Pancho which I shouldn’t have, and he didn’t like.  But if I had my time to go over again, I would have called the punk something a lot worse.  And then I was dragged to see this tough guy clown called Joe Grandi.  I called him a stupid little pig which I definitely don’t regret even though he was murdered later.  

When I saw him the next night he was without the wig on his head and lying dead at the bottom of my bed in this fleapit hotel in the centre of Los Robles.  I didn’t feel anything but terrified.  I woke up in the dark and drowsy from all the sodium pentothal that Pancho and his charming friends had popped into me that afternoon.  I had been staying at the Mirador Motel which is out of town and in the desert somewhere.  But as soon as I was knocked out by the sodium pentothal they dragged me into the fleapit downtown where Grandi was killed by Quinlan.  I just wanted to get out of that fleapit fast.  Quinlan and Grandi had this plan to make me look like a dope head.  The one thing they agreed on was that Miguel and his testimony against the Grandi family had to be discredited.  And they went for what they thought was the weakest link, that is me.  After what happened down in Los Robles, I now travel north on my vacations.  It affected me which is why I talk too much when I meet people.  Thank you, you’re very sweet.  You can’t believe how proud I am of stopping smoking.  I did it all on my own.  By then there was no Miguel Vargas in my life.  That’s another story.  I haven’t smoked for some time.  

I had expected peace and quiet in the Mirador.  And I hate myself for that.  I had insisted that Miguel take me to a motel back on the American side of the border.  Miguel was annoyed, seeing as he was Mexican and working for the Mexican Government.  If only I’d have stayed in Los Robles.  At least I would have been close to Miguel, not out on my own somewhere.  Funny thing, Los Robles had a strip joint.  For a small town the place had some pretty girls.  Overdone ladies perhaps but pretty nevertheless. 

Grandi sent Pancho and his gang out to the Mirador and they assaulted and doped me.  I can’t describe how awful it was and if I could, I wouldn’t.  Once Pancho and his friends had me unconscious they dragged me back to Los Robles and dumped me in that terrible hotel.  Miguel was busy on this case he should have never been involved in.  Some local bigwig had been blown up in his car.  He had a young woman with him, and she was pretty too.

To be fair to the Mirador Motel at least the bed had clean sheets unlike the fleapit where Grandi was killed.  But then Norman Bates kept his motel clean, and look what happened there.  The man that ran the Mirador was creepy but he meant no harm.  What could he do against Pancho and his reprobates?  There were a couple of girls in the gang but they were as twisted as the guys.  Can you believe that?  Things have been said about the man who was in charge at the Mirador.  He wasn’t the type to take home to Ma and Pa but he didn’t act hysterical in the way people said.  People don’t have to be gangsters to be cruel.  He was creepy though.  He had a look of the actor that played Norman Bates in that film Psycho.  I had to walk out of the cinema halfway through.  A film about dark deeds in a motel brought back too many memories.

I was still with Miguel then.  Miguel didn’t make a fuss about me walking out of the cinema.  Miguel was like that, he liked to be protective.  He was a big man and a decent man which was why I married him.  I felt protected which was maybe why I felt so let down by him.  It wasn’t really his fault but if he hadn’t got involved doing the decent thing in Los Robles then none of it would have happened.  The truth is that his decency wore me down in the end.  He was always fighting a cause somewhere. See what I mean about blaming everyone and not just Hank Quinlan?  People don’t realise that I never met Hank Quinlan.  Maybe if I had, he alone would be my monster.  I heard all about him from Miguel and how Quinlan used to frame suspects.  But I also heard about how his wife had been strangled to death and that Quinlan was never the same after that.  He was some kind of man, I suppose.  

Once Miguel discovered the police corruption in Los Robles then Quinlan had to do something or felt he did.  Joe Grandi wanted to discredit Miguel before the trial of this other Grandi that was in prison.  And that was why Quinlan and Grandi hatched the plan for Pancho and his friends to fill me up with dope.  Miguel was a little vague when I asked him why did Quinlan kill Grandi.  Miguel could be like that, preoccupied.   Miguel said something about Hank Quinlan not wanting witnesses and Quinlan being off his head on booze and not being able to think straight.  Quinlan killed Joe Grandi in the fleapit while I was there out cold in the same room.  And with one of my stockings, would you believe.  That isn’t the kind of thing that makes you feel good about yourself, I can tell you.

Los Robles was a dump of a town.  The kind of scruffy place that looked less dangerous at night because you couldn’t see the dirt and rubbish quite so well.  But Miguel and me got a kick out of walking through the border crossing that first night.  It felt like being free.  That only lasted until the car exploded, and that was when Miguel got involved.  I blame him for that.  I blame myself for wanting to go to an American motel.  I blame the other cops that let Quinlan run his crooked show even if they were hoodwinked.  I blame any of the trash associated with Grandi.  I blame the guy that ran the Mirador for not having the sense to jump into his truck and drive to get help.  I blame the local politicians who had not wanted to ask questions about a local police detective who never failed to solve a case and had the good luck of always finding incriminating evidence.  And I blame the girls in Los Robles who for a few bucks let these deadbeat men think they were something.   All that doesn’t let Quinlan off the hook but I can’t just hate the one man.  Maybe if I could it would have been different between Miguel and me.

Miguel quit his job in Mexico City after what happened in Los Robles because I wanted to come home to the States.  I have nothing against Mexicans.   Here in Los Angeles I work to support the Mexican communities and I’ve found good friends there.  But after Los Robles I just needed something more familiar.  Miguel agreed because he couldn’t resist the idea of rescuing me again.   I know I’m being harsh but it was how I felt about him and everything after what happened in the Mirador in the desert and then the fleapit downtown.  You know, I like vacations but I’ve never stayed in a hotel since what happened in Los Robles.  I made Miguel buy a big camper.  Those were good holidays but they didn’t keep us together.  Now I rent a lodge in the Rockies every summer.  Me and a couple of girlfriends.  It’s not quite the Rockies.  It’s not far from this town called Bridgeport.

Mike’s job here in Los Angeles didn’t help any, and after a while I think he blamed me.  The feeling was mutual you could say.  Miguel worked for the District Attorney.  I told him it was a good job but Miguel felt it was a comedown from working for the Mexican government.  And of course he saw things he didn’t like.  I lost count of the times he said so much for American progress.  Miguel used to say that Quinlan would have been thrown out the LAPD for decency.  LAPD were helping to run drugs over Los Angeles.  The only cop Miguel had any respect for in LA was this detective called Dave Bannion but Bannion left to work for the FBI and after that Miguel couldn’t settle.  So I blame the damned LAPD for Miguel wanting to go back to Mexico and for the two of us separating.  I did pack my case to follow Miguel to his job in Mexico but by the time the taxi had arrived to take me to the airport I had unpacked the case.   A month later I was no longer Mrs Vargas.  These days I keep away from men.  I have a tennis instructor I like and I let him mix me a martini but I even keep my distance from him.  He doesn’t seem to mind.  No, he’s Mexican.    

Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest book Go Break Bad is now available here.