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Johnny Cool (1963)

Not quite a Rat Pack film this black and white gangland feature starring Henry Silva in the title role proves to be a fringe contender to the Sinatra led vehicles. As a matter of fact all this film really needed was a cameo appearance by Frank and Dean and it would have been a certified addition to the Rat Pack collection of titles.

As it stands the connections include the early 1960’s with appearances by Sammy Davis Jr, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford serving as the film’s producer. Lawford also makes like Hitchcock or Castle turning up to introduce the movie in the original trailer. Of course Henry Silva was a member of Ocean’s 11. Even Sinatra buddy Brad (Von Ryan’s Express) Dexter costars.

Now on to the film that gave Henry Silva a rare leading role at this point in his career prior to going overseas in the 1970’s where he starred in a number of chilling Eurocrime thrillers.

“This is my family now.”

So says a young teenage kid brandishing a machine gun during WW2 who witnesses his mother’s death at the hands of the Nazis. A kid who will grow up to become Henry Silva. A bandit in the hills of Sicily with a price on his head. Shortly after we meet Silva, his apparent death is set up and he’s whisked off to Rome to meet a Mafia Don in exile played by long time screen heavy Marc Lawrence. Silva has been recruited by Lawrence to adopt his name and head to America in his place to regain control of the underworld while at the same time evening some old scores with the current heads of Mob families.

With a little refinement, some schooling in his intended targets coupled with an expensive suit and tie, Silva, the gangster is born.

First up is a trip to New York where he’ll make an impression on the Telly Savalas organization. He’ll also catch the eye of a pre-Bewitched Elizabeth Montgomery who flirts with our leading man, “All men look like men but so few really are.” This comes after she sees Silva KO a Made Man in a mob run bar. At first Silva will shrug her off but not for long. She’s persistent and will “accidently” run into him at the horse track where he’s flashing plenty of money and cashing winning tickets. Jumping a bit of plot points I’ll let you all know that when Miss Montgomery is manhandled by mobsters posing as Police looking for info on Silva, our leading man now known as Johnny Cool doesn’t take it lightly and leaves a trail of dead men in his wake.

Savalas is more than a little upset at the recent developments and not overly excited about handing over the entire underworld operation to Silva who makes it clear that’s what he’s after in a meet and greet. “I’m here to take it all.” Either that or blood will be spilled in the streets courtesy of a mob war. Joining Savalas as the heads of state are a few familiar faces. Elisha Cook Jr. and John Dierkes among them. Both being graduates of the western classic Shane. There’s also Jim Backus, Brad Dexter  and John McGiver fronting for a casino.  

With some help from his new lady love, Silva’s reign of violence begins. One assassination followed by another between New York and Las Vegas. Hey, there’s Peter Lawford’s name on a billboard shared with Jimmy Durante. Vegas Baby. And there’s the Sands hotel getting some free advertising as well. Why not, that’s where Frank and the Pack ran on many a night.

Where did Sammy and Joey fit in? Davis does double duty singing the title track, The Ballad of Johnny Cool, written by Sammy Cahn and also turns up as a professional dice roller at a crooked craps game meant to take Silva’s roll of hundreds he scored at the track. Can Sammy roll those sevens with a gun pressed against his temple? Joey’s role is strictly a comic relief job. He’s playing a fast talking car salesman on the strip who sells Montgomery a car all the while hoping he might score the key to her hotel room in the bargain.

When Silva moves in on Mort Sahl as his next hit he’s going to be awakened to exactly who will gain and who will lose once the blood stops flowing. He doesn’t like what he sees on the road ahead of him. While all this is going on there’s the threat of the F.B.I. moving in and whether or not Montgomery can handle the life of a gangster’s moll.

Cool was directed by William Asher. Mainly a TV director, Asher, did helm some of AIP’s Beach Party movies AND was married to Elizabeth Montgomery from 1963 to 1974 which not surprisingly found him directing 131 episodes of the hit show that made his wife a star. Utilizing plenty of location footage on the film is a bonus though the choppy editing didn’t do it any justice. That and the film needed a bigger blaze of gunfire in the finale to put it over. Still considering the cast involved and the film’s association with the Pack, it’s a pleasure to see it rescued from relative obscurity and put out on blu ray by Scorpion Releasing.

On the topic of the cast one guy jumped off the screen. If you weren’t quite sure and had your time line mixed up you’d think Rodney Dangerfield was in this film. Or maybe his Dad? Enter Hank Henry as a bug eyed overweight bus driver. I kept waiting for him to tell the police officer looking over the passengers for a killer that he gets “No respect.” Didn’t happen and after a quick look I see that Hank only appeared in a handful of titles. Mostly Sinatra and Pack films so there’s another connection for Johnny Cool.

Growing up watching the tough guys of cinema it’s no surprise that I’ve long been a fan of Henry Silva. From his years in westerns and mob films to those I was fortunate enough to see in my teenage years at the movie theater upon their release. Sharky’s Machine, Code of Silence and Above the Law at the forefront as he neared retirement. Not only was he in Ocean’s Eleven with the Sinatra clan but he also played alongside the Pack in Sergeant’s Three before soloing with Frank in The Manchurian Candidate and years later in Sinatra’s acclaimed TV Movie, Contract on Cherry Street. Silva would even join the so-called reunion with the Pack in 1984’s Cannonball Run II. Not surprisingly, Henry Silva, retired from the screen following a cameo in the 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven.

I’ll close with it’s kind of cool to look back and see Henry Silva playing it cool, Johnny Cool.

11 Comments »

  1. One of Henry Silva’s first leading roles, executive producer (uncredited if memory serves) Peter Lawford had the intention of making him the next big thing in action and crime films, but wouldn’t be until a decade later with the Italian Poliziotteschi that Silva would hit his mark. I did have the first DVD of this, but it never played right, so it kinda ruined the experience for me. May have to give it another go later.

  2. This is a cast to die for.
    Huge fan of anything from Jim Backus, Elizabeth Montgomery, Telly Savalas or indeed Sammy Davis
    Mort Sahl is now aged 93 and is apparently considered the first modern stand-up comedian since the vaudeville performer Will Rogers (1879 – 1935).

    Be sure to watch out for the ‘ol gunshot muffled by a pillow’ trick at the one minute 55 second mark in this classic trailer.

  3. I’ve always been a fan of Henry Silva — not to belabor it too much, but he was the epitome of cool for me. I just reacquainted myself with Johnny Cool recently after many years. It’s a shame he didn’t get more lead roles, but its so easy with such distinctive looks to get typecast, especially in villain roles (Jack Palance is another example). I’d also recommend one of his last movies, Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, where the shoe is on the other foot for Silva, who is a mob boss targeted for assassination by a rogue hit man.

    • I’ve seen Ghost Dog, just forgot to mention it. And yes he and Jack were much alike with those striking features that to us mere mortals look like they belong on hitmen and those that would do us harm. But I do love them both on screen so something worked out in the end. Silva in Sharky is a force of nature.

  4. I’m gonna hang off this one for the time being as I’m desperate to see it and wanna know nothing when I go in. Incidentally on my movies to watch list I have in capitol letters already inserted “”WATCH AS SOON AS YOU CAN YOU FOOL!!”” lol

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