Johnny Apollo

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It seems that I’m drawn back, time and again, to what we can term transitional works, be they westerns or any other genre. I suppose that reflects my own interest in observing the general shape of cinematic development, and the progress of popular culture overall. The more hyperbolic aspects of marketing might like to encourage the perception that new styles or movements suddenly explode onto the scene without warning and forever change the face of entertainment. However, that’s not the case at all, and I doubt it ever will be. No, all things grow out of and build upon what came before, some in a more radical fashion than others. Film noir was the great game changer in Hollywood in the 1940s, and it’s evolution fits the trend I’ve mentioned here. The French critics of the post-war period may have noticed what looked to them like a dramatic new direction in cinema after years of being starved of new US movies. Still, that was just an altered perception resulting from a unique set of circumstances; film noir took form just as gradually as any other cinematic movement. Johnny Apollo (1940) is one of those movies that shows the transition happening, borrowing heavily from the socially aware gangster films of the 30s and blending in the makings of a darker, more fatalistic tone.

The film follows the ups and downs of Bob Cain Jr (Tyrone Power), a carefree member of the wealthy elite who sees his life take a dramatic downward turn. The opening is pure 30s, as a frenetic Stock Exchange suspends trading amid accusations that Cain Sr (Edward Arnold) is an embezzler. This fact, along with his father’s indictment and subsequent imprisonment, leaves the younger Cain in a spot. His privileged upbringing has left him unprepared for such a rapid downfall. His initial reaction is a combination of naivety and a kind of spoiled petulance – how could his father disgrace him and damage his social standing in such a way? At this point, we’re looking at a deeply unsympathetic character, and I think one issue with the film as a whole is the fact that this initial selfishness is never quite overcome. However, Cain Jr soon feels the chill wind of reality as his attempts to make his way in the world get scuppered again and again by his father’s new notoriety. It would appear that all those friends and contacts were all of the fair weather variety. In one curiously satisfying twist, Cain finds himself shown the door by a boss who finds his concealment of his identity particularly distasteful – his own old man having died a drunk in prison. So, with his options running out fast, Cain finds himself drawn into the shady underworld of Mickey Dwyer (Lloyd Nolan), a big-time gangster. It’s here that Cain undergoes a major transformation, adopting the pseudonym Johnny Apollo and using every illicit means at his disposal to rise through the ranks of the underworld, all in the hope of securing his father’s release from prison. Personally, my biggest problem with all this is the matter of plausibility. Gangster movies of the classic 30s period did see honest men drawn into a life of crime by a mixture of social pressure and a desire to strike it rich. The crucial difference though is that those 30s movies generally featured lower class guys whose choices were dictated by their poor backgrounds. Johnny Apollo asks the viewer to accept that such circumstances could lead the wealthy down a similar path. Frankly, I have a hard time buying into that idea, and although the incongruity does recede somewhat as the story moves along it’s difficult to shake it off completely.

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Was Henry Hathaway one of the most versatile directors ever? Even a brief scan of his credits would suggest that he may well have been. Hathaway’s career was long, varied and successful, with examples of top class work in just about every genre. It seems that to be considered among the great director’s one needs to have either a recognizable motif, or to have concentrated in one particular genre. Hathaway was one of those thoroughgoing professionals whose dedication to his craft seemed to preclude any of the personal touches we associate with the more highly regarded figures in cinema. From a critical perspective, it was also his misfortune to be such an adaptable filmmaker – it’s much more difficult to put any kind of personal stamp on movies when the style varies so greatly. However, Hathaway remains one of my favorite directors, and I don’t think I’ve ever been completely disappointed by one of his movies. Johnny Apollo is well shot throughout, but the jailbreak finale is probably the real highlight and really ramps up the excitement. Unfortunately, from my point of view anyway, we get a coda tagged on which looks like it’s just there to provide a weak happy ending.

While I’ve admitted that I’m not altogether happy with the plausibility of the central character’s development, I can’t lay the blame for that at Tyrone Power’s feet. I feel he managed to nail the shift quite effectively – from fresh-faced enthusiasm to dismay, and finally a kind of ruthless single-mindedness. His interaction with Edward Arnold was well handled too, and this is crucial since the father son dynamic, and expectations of each, forms the basis of the story. Arnold had the more sympathetic part though; he may be an actor we don’t normally think of in such a light, but he brought a great deal of quiet dignity to his role as the fallen tycoon. However, as is often the case, Lloyd Nolan nearly steals the picture from under everyone’s noses. Nolan was a terrific actor, whose distinctive delivery and likeable demeanor, even when he was being vile, always adds something special to a film. In Johnny Apollo, Nolan was vicious, mean and hypocritical, but you can’t help rooting for him just a bit. I find it difficult to think of Dorothy Lamour without recalling her films with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. She’s good enough as Nolan’s put upon moll, and Power’s object of desire, but the Hope and Crosby connection makes her seem a little out of place in a straight drama like this. I’ll add a word of praise too for fine supporting turns from Lionel Atwill, Marc Lawrence and, most particularly, Charley Grapewin.

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I’m pretty sure Johnny Apollo was only ever released on DVD in the US as part of a Tyrone Power box set from Fox. I never picked up that set since the other movies contained didn’t especially appeal to me. Instead I bought the movie when Bounty in Australia put it out as part of their noir line. The film is licensed from Fox and boasts a very strong transfer – it’s sharp, clean and has good contrast levels. The disc is a bare bones effort though with no extra features at all offered. Even though Bounty have marketed the film as noir, as I said in the introduction, this is very much a transitional picture. Frankly, the whole thing has more in common with 30s movies, but the seeds of noir are there too, with the last third delving deeper into the ambiguities of dark cinema. If the film is approached purely as a film noir then it’s likely to prove disappointing. Viewed as a kind of bridge in the evolution of the thriller, it’s altogether more satisfying.

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24 thoughts on “Johnny Apollo

  1. Haven’t see this one, Colin but it sounds good and I will look out for it.i’ve only seen Dorothy Lamour in one drama,WILD HARVEST and it made me wish she had done more drama. One of hers I ‘d like to see is MANHANDLED with Sterling Hayden,Dan Duryea.
    Henry Hathaway directed 4 of my favorite films- CALL NORTHSIDE 777,THE DARK CORNER,RAWHIDE and GARDEN OF EVIL. Quite a varied group.

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    • I’ve never seen Lamour in any other drama. She’s OK, but I don’t think it was her thing and she was better suited to musical comedy roles.

      Those four Hathaway films you mentioned are as good an illustration as any of the quality of his output – there’s always something positive to take away from his movies.

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  2. Fascinating Colin – I’ve not seen this one (at least I don’t think …) but like you the box didn’t really attract – very glad to hear it is available singly in Oz (especially now that I have family out there). Hathaway’s work at Fox in this period, especially in the crime genre, is tremendously impressive in their complete professionalism so I am curious. Less sure about Power, though I do like him in several films (especially those that stretched him a bit, including THE BLACK SWAN, THE RAZOR’S EDGE, NIGHTMARE ALLEY and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION) – cheers mate.

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    • Cheers Sergio. Hathaway was making terrific crime/noir movies at Fox in the 40s. Apart from those already mentioned, Kiss of Death is a powerful and influential piece of work.

      I think Power was good when he was given the right material. He was a fair enough swashbuckler but the more demanding dramatic roles he did usually brought out the best in him. Power and Hathaway made five movies together – the only one I haven’t seen is Brigham Young – and they’re pretty enjoyable and generally solid.

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      • I remember liking RAWHIDE a lot but haven’t seen DIPLOMATIC COURIER in a very, very long time. BLACK ROSE I was a bit indifferent too as I recall but like you, I haven’t seen BRIGHAM YOUNG

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        • I wrote a piece on Diplomatic Courier when I first had a chance to see it. It has a cast to die for, and the location work is impressive. However, the writing could be stronger in my opinion.

          Rawhide is a marvelous exercise in sustained tension with a very good part for Susan Hayward.

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          • If I remember the Fox DVD of RAWHIDE has a decent little ‘making of’ that does go into Hathaway’s legendary toughness with actors (and why that came in handy with Hayward) – but yes, terrific little movie.

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          • The thing I found interesting about Diplomatic Courier was its setting in nominally independent Trieste; it wasn’t until about 1955 (I’d have to look up the exact date) that the region reverted partly to Italy (including the city of Trieste) and partly to Yugoslavia, with the Yugoslav territory now divided between Slovenia and Croatia.

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            • Hi Ted. Generally, those post-war and Cold War films show a Europe in the process of being carved up and shared out among various interested parties and it is a fascinating, if tumultuous, period – a perfect background for intrigue and drama.

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  3. I don’t think I have ever even heard of this film before. No matter, you have peaked my interests and it is going on my list. I have really begun to enjoy Tyrone Power in recent years and even though that box set doesn’t offer anything to appealing, I might have to get it just to give all the films a chance.
    You guys have also left me with a need to watch “Rawhide” today just by talking about it. Thanks

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    • Paul, I’m glad I piqued your interest in the movie. I think it’s quite good, so long as you approach it in the right way. Power has lots of interesting films among his credits and there’s plenty of good stuff to explore. Although Power’s character in Rawhide is a little weak, the film is certainly worthwhile and comes highly recommended.

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  4. Have not seen JOHNNY APOLLO its on my “must track down list”
    Are Bounty still in business,they have been very quiet recently after their initial wave a few
    years ago.
    I too really admire the aforementioned RAWHIDE,yet another great Hugh Marlowe performance
    as the somewhat cultured bad guy.I wish that Tyrone Power had made more Westerns.
    Its fun comparing RAWHIDE with the original version SHOW THEM NO MERCY! recently released
    as a Fox MOD. The transfer is in pretty good shape for a 1935 film.There is a burst of graphic
    violence at the end of the film that the audience just does not second guess,still pretty shocking
    even by todays standards.At any rate its still a taut,tough little movie well worth seeking out.

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    • John, I think you’d get something out of Johnny Apollo – it’s one of those lesser known movies you tend to enjoy. I have no idea what the situation is with Bounty but they don’t appear to have released anything for quite some time now.
      I also think Power was fine in westerns, even if he didn’t make too many. Never seen Show Them No Mercy!

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  5. Actors and actresses often tended to fall into a niche and get cast that way most of the time and that’s what happened with Dorothy Lamour. She’s fine in that niche but the relatively few more dramatic roles showed she could handle them very well with the right director–who, I believe, was ideally Hathaway. It’s true of JOHNNY APOLLO, but even more of SPAWN OF THE NORTH, her best performance and I think he’s her best director.

    I agree with what you say about Hathaway since I’ve been seeing his movies all my life, glad to go back to most of them, and would say of the 50 I have seen I very much like the greater share of them and very few entirely miss. Yes, he’s good in many genres (though I don’t think of any musicals or comedies jumping out–most melodramas, adventure movies, Westerns, crime movies, genres he is almost invariably good in). I think there is a sensibility there and stylistic tendencies, though he may not be looking for them to jump out. He is patient with narrative, and doesn’t rush things, though can keep the narrative exciting even so. Really, an underrated director.

    And though JOHNNY APOLLO isn’t a Western, I rate him especially well in the genre, one of my favorite directors for it based on RAWHIDE, GARDEN OF EVIL, FROM HELL TO TEXAS, the comedic NORTH TO ALASKA (an absolute delight), THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER, TRUE GRIT, as well as the earlier rural melodrama THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS (1941), related to Westerns and starring John Wayne and Harry Carey in the main male roles, beautifully filmed in Technicolor, a second foray for Hathaway doing Technicolor in exteriors which he had pioneered in also fine THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE five years earlier.

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    • Blake, just to pick up on one of the points at the end of your comment. Hathaway may not be commonly regarded as a pioneer in cinema, but he was involved in the birth or early stages of a number of trends. His location shooting in color in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine is one. Johnny Apollo and it’s early exploration of noir sensibilities is another, while The House on 92nd Street is one of the first examples of location shot documentary noir.

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  6. Colin,
    “Johnny Apollo” seems to be more in keeping with a morality play than a faux, Fox-released Noir as publicised by “Bounty”. The theme of this film is the relationship between father and son when placed under extreme pressure. As you have mentioned, the examination of their reactions upon discovering their individual foray into crime provides the basis of the screenplay and purpose for the action.

    Both protagonists attempt to achieve their aims by turning to crime. Cain (Snr), resorts to embezzlement to provide his son with the best opportunities in life, while Cain (Jnr), impoverished as the result of his father’s misdemeanour, refused assistance by his father’s former friend’s , and unable to secure a job, searches for a means to obtain a considerable sum of money in order to gain the release his father from incarceration. To achieve this, he becomes the “brains” behind a criminal gang.

    Cain (Jnr.) reacts without understanding and little compassion when news of his father’s crime first comes to light, considering his own position first and foremost. Cain (Snr) is unable to accept his son’s self-centered position and they part on seemly unreconcilable terms. Despite this, Cain (Jnr) soon recognises his immature behaviour and reconciles with his father promising him that he will ensure that Cain (Snr) is released, and soon.

    In similar circumstances, Cain (Snr) when confronted with his son’s crimes, acts just as badly and simply refuses to acknowledge his son as his own. A position I find rather hyprocritical and, for a mature father who supposedly cares for his son, a far worse reaction than that initially displayed by Cain (Jnr).

    In essence Cain (Snr)’s cold dismissal of his own son causes a shift in attitude by Cain (Jnr) into a more cynical, hardened criminal. I readily accept “Johnny Apollo’s” toughened outlook – hasn’t his father previously advised him to live by his own rule, “Eat or be eaten” ?

    Cain (Snr) has gained the admiration of Mickey Dwyer, Johnny Apollo’s gangster boss, but does he really impress the audience? To me, his behaviour towards his own son denies this, although the script is careful to provide Cain (Snr) with the opportunity to display a sad, disappointed, even dignified persona and so disguises his regretable attitude.

    I enjoyed this film, and, fortunately do not suffer with your problem associated with Dorothy Lamour’s appearances in a number of notable comedies , although I have seen them all.

    It is unfortunate that the conclusion of the film is rather a let-down from “what went before”, but of course it was subject to the “Hay’s Code” and the popular demand of audiences, at that period in time.

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    • Thanks for the detailed response Rod. I guess looking at the movie as a father does provide a different perspective. Personally, I can still get round Cain Senior’s harsh attitude to his the news that his son has taken up with Dwyer. As I read it, he wanted his son to toughen up, break a few rules if necessary, but involvement with the mob and the likes of Dwyer was simply beyond the pale as far as he was concerned. On the other hand, Cain Jr/Apollo’s utter rejection of any morality save some misguided notion of honor among thieves, while understandable enough, left me with a more unfavorable impression of him.

      I didn’t mean to give the impression that I took issue with Dorothy Lamour, although I see now how it might be interpreted as such. I think she did excellent work and added a lot to the films she did with Hope and Crosby. Having been so used to seeing her in those roles, it was odd for me, and therefore not entirely satisfactory to see her playing such a contrasting part.

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      • Colin,

        I readily admit that I have a father/grandfather’s point of view in respect of “Johnny Apollo”, ( the character), as I believe that many parents in similar circumstances would. I certainly agree that any father would be disappointed to receive the news that Cain (Snr) suffered.

        Perhaps where we differ, is my belief that Cain (Jnr) , in his sense of duty to gain his father’s release from prison, still maintains a certain degree of naivety, despite his association with criminals. In fact, Johnny earns the respect of both “The Judge” and “Lucky”, so much so, that they are prepared to put their future, (and life), on the line in an endeavour to save him from prison.

        “Lucky”, in her confrontation with Cain (Snr) sets out the situation succinctly, ” He put his soul on hock to try to get you out of here – that”s why he got mixed up with Dwyer”. She continues, “All the time he has never had a wrong thought in his head. What sort of a father do you call yourself, anyway ?

        Colin, I suppose by now that you would guess that I rate this film rather highly, perhaps more that most.

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        • That’s a good point regarding the naivety of the Cain Jr/Apollo character. I guess he does retain a certain innocence or trustfulness that leads to others laying it on the line for him.

          I think the movie is pretty good too and I was satisfied enough overall. I think anyone coming to it fresh and expecting more of a film noir atmosphere might be a bit disappointed though.

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  7. It’s easy to suspend disbelief with a combo like Power, Arnold and Nolan, plus so many fine character actors. Those are three actors who *always* delivered. I always watch a movie if one of those three are in it. Arnold was very versatile, in the early 30’s he was the somewhat husky but romantic or sympathetic lead, as he got heftier, he played more heavies, but he was often in comedies where he was very cute.

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    • Yes Muriel, the cast is very strong. Good supporting players, and Nolan and Arnold were among the very best, add so much to movies. While a strong lead can certainly carry a picture, when you get powerful support too then the whole experience is much richer.

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    • I think I was hoping for more of a full-on noir picture when I watched it and thus I felt a little disappointed with what I got. I haven’t seen it since but i reckon if I approached now thinking of it as something of a bridge between the socially aware crime movies of the 30s and film noir, then it might be more successful for me.

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