Dick Powell stars in the title role as Johnny, who runs a high-class gambling establishment. Johnny never gambles and has a clean record, but he hangs out with a bunch of lowlifes, including his "man" Charlie (John Kellogg), just out of prison; his slimy business partner Guido (Thomas Gomez); his persistent old flame -- and Guido's wife -- Nelle (Ellen Drew); crooked cop Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon); and Guido's assorted henchmen, including Turk (Jeff Chandler).
Johnny has a soft spot for a young hatcheck girl with a troubled love life, Harriet (Nina Foch), and he's shaken when she turns up dead early on in the film. When Harriet's sister Nancy (Evelyn Keyes) comes to town, she and Johnny recognize their instantaneous attraction to one another. Nancy might be the one woman who can persuade Johnny to leave behind his sordid lifestyle and help Inspector Koch (Lee J. Cobb) unravel the truth behind her sister's supposed suicide.
All the key elements which make a good film noir are here -- the jaded, glib hero; the innocent heroine and the evil femme fatale; rainy streets and shadows on walls shot in gleaming black and white by Burnett Guffey; terrific hard-boiled dialogue; and a perfect cast.
There were some moments I absolutely loved, such as Johnny ripping open the door to a phone booth and barking at the man inside that he needs his car keys, communicating to the audience without dialogue that Johnny is on to the fact that the man in the booth is setting him up. Or Johnny tossing a Mexican coin while verbally dueling with the police inspector, and we see the light dawn in Johnny's eyes as he realizes the identity of a murderer. And watch the cinematography in the police station, with the shadows of hats on the wall behind the characters; a mundane scene is transformed into a moment of noir beauty.
Powell and Keyes have excellent chemistry, starting from the moment they first see each other and silently recognize a mutual attraction. Their onscreen scenes are perfectly proper yet highly charged, with a subtext that seems quite steamy for 1947. Two years later Powell and Keyes were reteamed in a much different film, MRS. MIKE (1949).
The rest of the cast is excellent, starting with Lee J. Cobb as the persistent police detective. Ellen Drew is terrific as the alcoholic beauty who lusts after Johnny yet doesn't want to give up her husband -- or more particularly, his money. Nina Foch is the third significant woman in the cast, and she's quietly effective as she copes with being dumped by the no-good man she loves.
The bit parts are also well cast, including Phil Brown (Uncle Owen from STAR WARS) as a hotel clerk, Mabel Paige as a nosy neighbor, and Jeff Chandler as one of Guido's men. Thomas Gomez, who plays Guido, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Robert Montgomery's RIDE THE PINK HORSE the same year JOHNNY O'CLOCK was released.
JOHNNY O'CLOCK was the first film directed by Robert Rossen, whose later credits included BODY AND SOUL (1947), ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949), and THE HUSTLER (1961). Rossen also wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Milton Holmes. The script is filled with marvelous bits of dialogue, such as the moment when a gun is fired several times in a row and a bunch of hoods calmly get up from the poker table to investigate, with one quizzically saying, "Someone's got a bad cough."
JOHNNY O'CLOCK is not available on DVD or VHS. (Vote interest in a DVD release on this page.) It's a Columbia film which has recently been shown in a gorgeous print on Turner Classic Movies.
The trailer is here.
This may be a bit heretical to some film noir fans, but I thought JOHNNY O'CLOCK was a better film noir than Powell's classic MURDER, MY SWEET (1944). Highly recommended.
April 2012 Update: I had another great experience seeing this film at the Noir City Film Festival.
May 2013 Update: JOHNNY O'CLOCK will be released on DVD this summer from the TCM Vault Collection.