Johnny Eager (Robert Taylor) had been a known as a ruthless gangster, but after spending some time in prison, he’s turned over a new leaf as a cab driver. At least that’s what he wants his parole officer to think. When he isn’t driving a cab, he’s as cutthroat as ever, involved in illegal gambling, and is working on opening his own dog racing track. While visiting his parole officer one day, he runs into sociology student Lisbeth Bard (Lana Turner). There’s an immediate attraction between them, but it grows into a deeper infatuation when they meet again later. Lisabeth is much more sophisticated and intellectual than the type of women Johnny usually meets.
When Johnny suspects his friend Lew (Barry Nelson) has been short-changing him, he and his associate Jeff (Van Heflin) go to a nightclub to confront Lew. While there, he runs into Lisabeth again, who has been left alone after her date got drunk. Johnny gladly keeps her company for the rest of the night, but when he brings her home, he discovers Lisabeth’s father is John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold), the man responsible for putting Johnny behind bars. Farrell is also the one preventing Johnny’s dog track from opening.
Of course, Farrell isn’t happy about Johnny seeing his daughter and wants to put a stop to it. He tells Johnny he will do anything to protect his daughter, even if it means killing or framing Johnny for something. So Johnny decides to turn the tables on Farrell by coming up with a scheme for his friend Julio to come bursting into Johnny’s apartment while Lisabeth is there. Julio and Johnny stage a fight, Lisabeth shoots Julio with a gun loaded with blanks, and Johnny escorts her away before she can question what happened. Lisabeth has a breakdown over the incident, but Johnny uses gun with her fingerprints on it to blackmail Farrell into letting his dog track open.
Johnny’s dog track has a successful opening night, but after the stunt with Lisabeth, some of his closest associates are getting concerned that his ruthless behavior is getting out of hand. One of them even offers Johnny $500,000 to close the track and leave town with Lisabeth. It isn’t until he visits Lisabeth that he realizes just how badly he’s hurt her. For once, Johnny feels badly about what he’s done and wants to make it right, even if it means putting his life on the line to do it.
Johnny Eager has a pretty standard gangster movie/film noir plot, but strong writing and good acting save it from being just another run-of-the-mill gangster flick. Robert Taylor may get the star billing, and he is very good as Johnny Eager, but it’s Van Heflin who really steals the show. Heflin completely deserved the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he won for his work in Johnny Eager. I’m a big fan of Lana Turner, but I don’t think this was her best work. Although I did get a kick out seeing her play what has got to be the most outrageously glamorous sociology student of all time. If you’ve never seen it before, Johnny Eager is definitely worth keeping an eye out for; it’s very enjoyable.