Henry Silva qualifies on basically all of those things, a character actor who made a career out of playing supporting parts, usually crazy, psychopathic villains. He was GOOD at it, beyond good, a great bad guy. Then there's 1963's Johnny Cool where Silva got a starring role as the definition of an anti-hero bordering on out-and-out bad guy.
As a young teenager in 1940s Sicily with World War II raging, young Salvatore Giordano sees his mother killed by a German soldier. He joins the Italian partisans, becoming a hero across the countryside both during the war and after. Years pass and now Salvatore (Silva) is infamously known around the country and even internationally. Some know him simply as a bandit chieftain, others as a modern day Robin Hood. An exiled American gangster, Johnny Colini (Marc Lawrence), arranges a faked death for Salvatore as he has far bigger plans for him. Colini teaches Salvatore how to act and look like a gentleman, but more importantly he turns him into an unstoppable killer. His intended targets? The men who helped orchestrate Colini's exile. If Salvatore -- taking the gangster's name -- can pull it off, Colini's empire will be his.
Yikes. What a vicious, brutal movie. From director William Asher, it's even darker when you consider it was released in 1963. Playing like a hard-boiled, brutal, in your face film noir, 'Cool' is the definition of a B-movie. It's gritty and doesn't feel faked from beginning to end. While there are indoor/studio shots, there is also plenty of on-location scenes from New York City to Los Angeles to Las Vegas. The gloomy, impending doom, jazz-heavy score from Billy May and Johnny Worth permeates Asher's gangster/underworld story. This is a story based in smoky nightclubs, in backroom gambling halls, in gangsters' offices in high rises. Filmed in black and white, there's a great, throwback style throughout. I didn't love the movie -- little slow-moving at times -- but it does have a lot going for it.
From possibly unhinged supporting player to...partially unhinged leading player....Yeah, okay, maybe this part isn't a huge departure for Silva, but it's a chance he doesn't disappoint with. While there's a strong ensemble working with him, this is Silva's movie, plain and simple. It's cool to see the transformation his character goes through, from revenge-seeking teenager to infamous bandit to killing machine. It would have been cool to see some more background, more motivation -- is he solely interested in riches and fame? Is it something else, something more? -- but we see a man who becomes obsessed with achieving his goal. It's pretty apparent from the second we meet Salvatore/Johnny that this is one doomed dude, but the route he takes is certainly fascinating. Silva brings that intensity we've come to expect from the veteran character actor. A very interesting part.
The rest of the cast has its positives and negatives. Ever seen 1960s TV sitcom Bewitched? Yeah, Samantha herself, Elizabeth Montgomery plays Darien, a divorced woman looking for some excitement and getting more than she figured when she joins up with Silva's Johnny. How about some of Johnny's hopeful victims? There's Telly Savalas (sporting some hair), Jim Backus, John McGiver Brad Dexter and Mort Sahl. If that wasn't enough, also look for Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Jr., Richard Anderson, Elisha Cook Jr. Beyond Montgomery and Savalas, no one on this list is around for more than a couple minutes, the story almost becoming a revolving door of quick cameos. Still, cool to see some big names like this all in one cast.
Mostly though, this is a dark movie to sit back and watch without much in the way of a sympathetic character. Silva's Salvatore/Johnny becomes a killing machine who's beyond saving. Fascinating to watch, far from an even remotely sympathetic anti-hero. Much of the violence is off-screen, but it's pretty hardcore just the same. You don't have to see it to know that a man getting bashed in the head with a shotgun is gonna be rather graphic. People are dispatched with no build-up, no tension. Just BOOM! You're dead. And that ending....wow, just wow. We don't see what's going on, but the foreshadowing is rough. An interesting movie, but beware of what you're getting into.
Johnny Cool (1963): **/****