Friday, August 20, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Johnny O'Clock (1947)

JOHNNY O'CLOCK is top-drawer film noir, a delicious piece of movie making which deserves to be more widely seen.

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.


Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Sounds terrific. Thanks for a great review.

4:39 AM  
Blogger Jean Howard said...

This movie sounds very interesting! I'll have to see when TCM shows it again and try to watch it then.

8:21 AM  
Blogger Biograph Consulting said...

I agree completely with your assessment concerning the strengths of this snappy little noir--though Powell is certainly not "doomed" in the gloomy manner of most noir heroes, the snappy dialogue between he and each encountered challenge is snappy and electric; I was particularly interested in the actual relationship between he and his ex-con "faithful" roommate, as it seems charged in an odd way, the devotion on the latter's part odd and slightly kinky. Keyes and the largely unknown Drew are perfect foils for Johhny, too, a nice contrasting set of choices. Thanks Laura--and let's get a DVD release for this one!

9:18 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all for your comments! This film is a favorite I've now enjoyed multiple times, and I highly recommend it for anyone who's not yet caught up with it.

Although it came out on DVD in the TCM Vault collection, it's definitely overdue for a reissue which will be more easily accessible/affordable!

Best wishes,

6:41 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

No question that Johnny O'clock is Dick Powell in a peak performance. and while Murder, My Sweet is fine, Johnny is the cream. Someone above described Ellen Drew
as little known. That is and was wrong. She had top parts for years, in addition to being a great beauty.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

How interesting you felt that way about the two films as well, Barrylane! I like them both but our favorite of the two, JOHNNY O'CLOCK, deserves much more attention than it's received over the years.

Drew was a lovely actress! Her performances in this and STARS IN MY CROWN, in particular, are quite memorable.

Best wishes,

8:46 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Little things add up! Enjoyed a chortle when the waiter lit the table candle and satirically expressed, "atmosphere".

At times, Johnny seems the trusting type. He doesn't fire his own crooked casino dealer that keeps a mechanical card cheat device inside his sleeve.
He seems to give his live-in henchman to many second chances.
Does he really trust his partner Marchettis, and hopes he will get an honest cash split?
There is some humanity in the darkness of noir!

Evelyn Keyes is lovely. Her role in 99 River Street was tasty and a favorite.

Enjoying your positive reviews Laura!

11:49 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Johnny is a cynic as well as being more than a bright guy; a sophisticate without a formal education, but aspirations. To what? What have you got. That he is surrounded by these people brutal, stupid whorish goes to the world in which he lives, and the only one known to him. My guess is when Milton Holmes conceived the original story, Ben Siegel was in his mind. Now -- I have a personal Dick powell story:

When I began in the business most of the older men were more than kind, outright helpful to me. One of those, a television agent, knew I admired Mr. Powell, and one day as I passed his office he called me, and introduced us. That meeting came down to this. Barry, what would you like to be when you grow up? Just like you, Mr. Powell. Write me a letter.

I did write, and while I did not hear back from Dick Powell i did from someone at Four Star offering me a job as Production Coordinator, code language for mail room clerk and gopher. A great opportunity, but I had never been to the Coast, and as the child of a homeless bankrupt was simply fearful. A little while later, say a year or two, I could have been ready, but he had died, and it was all off the table.

Now back to Johnny O'Clock. This should be on Blu Ray with a commentary way beyond the limitations and arrogance of Eddie Muller; my suggestion, contact Norman Powell.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks to the anonymous commenter for the kind words and sharing thoughts on this favorite noir. A great deal to enjoy in this film.

Berrylane always enjoy your thoughts on this movie. What a fantastic story about your experience with Dick Powell. I've heard good things about how he conducted himself businesswise and this seems to be in line with that.

It was special to watch Powell and Blondell on the big screen at UCLA a few years ago with Norman Powell sitting across the aisle from me. :)

Best wishes,

11:52 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer›  ‹Older