There’s this point in the wonderfully dream-like, and, to my mind, widely underrated Dark Passage (1947) when the movie casts off the single point-of-view through which the entire first third is rendered, and the protagonist, Vincent Parry, finally appears before the camera. We knew all along it was Humphrey Bogart, but it’s only from this point on that Parry looks like Bogart. After escaping from prison, Parry has surgery that transforms him from some beefy guy with a moustache into Bogart, and I’ve always been fascinated by this process through which the protagonist suddenly becomes the movie star, by the implication that the face we all know was only hiding, that it had to be arrived at, to be earned, in order to be introduced into this bizarre crime story.
Though I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid, the thing I always remembered about Johnny Handsome (89) was that it operated on this same principle. Mickey Rourke was a big star at the time, a different sort of actor than Bogart, yet one who’d inherited something of Bogart’s persona. Johnny Handsome doesn’t hide Rourke from view for its first third, but it does obscure Rourke’s visage behind prosthetic bone distortions and tumours. Johnny’s a career criminal who gets nabbed when his cohorts in a New Orleans coin shop heist betray he and his best friend, the only person who ever loved him. Once incarcerated, an attempt is made on Johnny’s life. While in hospital, Johnny meets Forest Whitaker’s benevolent Dr. Fisher, who has a theory that “surgical rehabilitation can be a deterrent to criminal recidivism.” He’s trying to tell Johnny that giving him a normal face might change him into an upstanding citizen.
So the moment finally arrives when the cruelly dubbed Johnny Handsome becomes the genuinely handsome Rourke. Of course, it’s less shocking than it’s perhaps meant to be—the brilliance of the collaboration between Rourke and the movie’s talented make-up artists winds up making Johnny nearly as charismatic and expressive when deformed and ugly as when he looks like Mickey Rourke. No matter, Johnny Handsome is an efficient and gripping neo-noir, one of the best such works from Walter Hill’s most active decade as director. It’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Maple.
The characters in Hill’s earlier The Driver (78) are only ever identified by their vocations, ie: “the Detective,” as though actual names would be too sissy. This conceit served to emphasize archetype over personality, and, accordingly, the characters’ actions adhered strictly within the dictates of their roles. Johnny Handsome is only slightly looser in this regard. The cast is amazing, but their characters are essentially resigned to the very determinism that Dr. Fisher is crusading against. Thus an extra-mean Lance Henriksen and a colossally haired Ellen Barkin are really bad bad guys and stay really bad until the end. Johnny was always a man of honour drawn to crime and stays a man of honour drawn to crime. Morgan Freeman has the only role that’s trickier to discern, playing a laid-back, rather Satanic cop who wants to nail all the crooks, Johnny included, and wants let the crooks themselves do all the heavy lifting. He basically just hangs around, massaging the wheels of fate until he gets precisely what he wants—and man, does he look good in a hat.
The pleasures of Johnny Handsome are in watching fatalism run its course in the most dynamic way possible. There’s style without any fancy stuff, brute violence without gratuitous gore, sex without skin. Like the surgeons who carve the unwanted flesh and sinew from Johnny’s face, Hill sculpts the movie down to pure muscle, until it’s the leanest Don Siegel movie Don Siegel never made. Who knows? Maybe if you shaved off Hill’s beard, did a little nip ‘n’ tuck, and sent him to the gym for six weeks, he’d turn out to actually be Don Siegel.