Then Playing — Girlfriends; Johnny Eager; Chain Lightning

Girlfriends (Claudia Weill, 1978). This agreeably scrappy independent feature is an ancestor of Nicole Holofcener’s Walking and Talking and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha in its wry astuteness as it considers the complications of holding on to female friendship as romantic relationships intrude. As a bonus, the film is vibrantly alive with the local color of New York City during the era where every bit of it was romantically gritty and decrepit. Girlfriends stars Melanie Mayron as Susan Weinblatt, a young woman with a fledgling photography career who makes clumsy, often ill-advised attempts at filling in the blank spots of her life. Mayron is endearing in the role because she emphasizes the awkwardness of the character without actorly attempts to infused charm into the stunted social graces. Claudia Weill directs deftly and empathetically, guiding the narrative through subtle leaps in time that emphasize how long it often takes to a person to rouse themselves out of stagnation. Christopher Guests appears in an early role, convincingly playing a lazy Lothario who, logically enough, turns into a lousy boyfriend.

Johnny Eager (Mervyn LeRoy, 1941). This impressively tough-minded crime picture follows the title character (Robert Taylor) as he puts on a guise of being a respectable, rehabilitated citizen befitting his parole status while he surreptitiously whips up a crime empire centered on a new dog racing track. Lana Turner plays one of unfortunate women caught in his dangerous orbit, and Van Heflin is fantastic as a grim, sardonic drunk in his employ. Heflin won an Academy Award for his turn here, justifiably so. It’s not solely an understanding of the dictates of the Hays Code at the time that makes Johnny Eager feel like a helpless march to a brutally bleak ending. Director Mervyn LeRoy finesses the tone to emphasize the inevitability of Johnny’s downfall, carefully stressing that tainted opportunity and looming doom travel on intersecting paths for the individuals who operate in this greedy, grubby milieu.

Chain Lightning (Stuart Heisler, 1950). The Maverick of his day, Lt. Colonel Matt Brennan (Humphrey Bogart) is a bomber pilot who regularly pushes his aircraft to its very limit in a manner that’s either reckless or daring, depending on one’s perspective. After World War II is over, Matt feels a little aimless, at least until he’s recruited by an aviation magnate (Raymond Massey, roaring his way through a role clearly based on Howard Hughes) to be the test pilot for a new jet fighter. There’s also a romance afoot, of course, as Matt tries to revive a wartime relationship with Jo Holloway (Eleanor Parker). Entertaining as it is to see how eager the screenwriters and director Stuart Heisler are to continually wrench the narrative back to a new opportunity for Bogart to toughly monologue, Rick Blaine–like, Chain Lightning is overall a dull film that moves through predictable beats in rote fashion. The airborne action sequences aren’t engaging or impressive either, even allowing for a charitable correction to account for the era.

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