Van Heflin won his Oscar from his only Oscar nomination for portraying Jeff Hartnett in Johnny Eager.
Although the academy certainly deserves a great deal of the criticism it receives one must give them credit sometimes when they make a great decision. Johnny Eager is actually a finely made, but in many ways a standard crime melodrama. One facet of the film it is not at all standard, and it is the only aspect of the film that the academy rewarded or even nominated. This facet is that of he character of Jeff Hartnett, and Van Heflin's portrayal of him. Jeff is the closest confidant of Johnny Eager, he is not really is right hand man because although he helps Johnny out he really is not one of his men. Jeff instead stands as the only real friend that Johnny has, and the only one he can truly trust.
Heflin is terrific in his realization of the philosophical alcoholic Jeff who is a constant observer and commentator on Johnny. Heflin in just the way he sits, the way he holds his cigarette, the way he is constantly gripping his alcohol as if it is one of the few thing he can grasp onto creates a portrait of a very unique character in Jeff. Heflin creates a sort of history in Jeff that we certainly never hear of where he came from exactly, and the film never tells us. Heflin's performance though so vividly realizes this man that undeniably shows us something of Jeff history. Jeff has been in this role of confidant for sometime, and Heflin shows that it has slowly brought him to this place.
To say that Van Heflin steals every scene that he is in as Jeff is quite an understatement, he owns every single one of his scenes from beginning to end. There is not one moment that is not his, he even takes away a scene from the rest of the actors even when he has only a single reaction shot that is how effective Heflin is in the role. Heflin's portrayal is simply consistently fascinating in the way he realizes the character of Jeff's constant observations and reactions to the various dealings in Johnny life. His brief statement he makes or a small glance always conveys so much in what is so little. Heflin brings a far greater power to every scene simply through his presence.
The central part of his performance is of course Jeff's relationship with Johnny. Heflin makes Jeff as always the moral judge to Johnny, even though Van Heflin never acts as some sort of pompous individual looking down upon Johnny's action, rather he is merely the man constantly soaking up everything Johnny does. Heflin shows that really everything Johnny does only bares down on his soul when it really should be bearing down on Johnny. Heflin makes Jeff the soul of Johnny, he is the way who feels the pain over what Johnny does to get his ways in the criminal underworld. Heflin realizes this pain perfectly as something slowly wearing Jeff down, and only making his depression only worse.
Heflin brings this pain to life brilliantly and brings to life the conflict of the film wholly in his performance. His scene when Jeff finally does confront Johnny over his immoral actions is an incredible scene for Heflin. When he finally tells Johnny that he was going to turn him in only to do the right there where Johnny has consistently failed to do so, Heflin intensely shows us the full toll of Johnny's actions on Jeff's conscious. It is a great scene made by Heflin absolutely honest portrayal. He never shows that Jeff is at all disappointed in his own stance really, but rather he cannot believe the way his friend has allowed himself to continue his selfish streak no matter how many lives it ruins.
The riskiest aspect of Heflin's portrayal is probably showing the fact that Jeff loves Johnny. How exactly Jeff loves him, or in what way Van Heflin appropriately keeps a mystery, yet he still shows that in some way he does care for his friend very deeply. What is outstanding about this is that Heflin never has a forced moment in his portrayal of this. He makes it clear that Jeff can never bring himself to become detached to Johnny even if common sense says he probably should. Heflin honestly makes this a moving portrait of Jeff genuine love for Johnny, and his disappointment knowing what Johnny could have been in another life. Heflin's final scene, which could have meant very little without him there, is absolutely heartbreaking. He is entirely devastating in his depiction of just how crushed Jeff is to see that Johnny never will be able to live to the potential that Jeff was always assured he could have been. He made me actually care more for Johnny in his heartfelt portrayal than Robert Taylor ever made me feel for him in his actually portrayal of Johnny. This is an excellent performance by Heflin, this could not be a better supporting performance, that not only is the best part of the film, but his presence only makes the film far greater than it would have been otherwise.