Robert Rossen’s Johnny O’Clock — yes, it’s really about a man named “Johnny O’Clock” — isn’t as good as some of Rossen’s later films, like The Hustler (1961), but it’s a great start. Rossen was a prolific writer of screenplays, but Johnny O’Clock was his first time in the director’s chair.
The improbably named protagonist is played with a light touch by former crooner Dick Powell. Johnny is a partner in a New York gambling syndicate run by an oily, overweight gangster named Pete Marchettis (Thomas Gomez).
Marchettis is married to a beautiful sloppy drunk named Nelle (Ellen Drew) who’s still carrying a torch for her ex-boyfriend, Johnny, but who loves the dough too much to ever leave Marchettis. Powell’s scenes with Gomez and Drew are some of the best of the picture, as the boozy moll falls all over Johnny in front of Marchettis and his heavy-hitters, seemingly oblivious to her husband’s jealousy. At the same time, Marchettis seems desperate for approval from both Johnny and his wife. In one scene, he goes on and on about the portrait he had a Mexican boy paint of him. When he shows it to Johnny and asks him if he likes it, Johnny simply responds, “It looks like you.”
There’s a police inspector named Koch (Lee J. Cobb) who’s hounding Johnny O’Clock, lurking in the lobby of the hotel where he lives and constantly trying to catch him riding dirty. Johnny’s association with corrupt cop Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon) rubs the honest Inspector Koch the wrong way, especially since Blayden’s been on the winning end of more than one shootout with Marchettis’s rivals. Koch suspects that Marchettis and Johnny are using Blayden to do their dirty work under the guise of “justifiable homicide.”
When a pretty hat-check girl who works at Johnny O’Clock’s casino goes missing, things heat up. The girl, Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch), was dating Chuck Blayden, and when her body is found in her gas-filled apartment — an apparent suicide — Koch smells foul play. As soon as Harriet’s sister, Nancy Hobson (Evelyn Keyes), arrives in New York to claim her sister’s body, cracks begin to appear in Johnny O’Clock’s carefree exterior. He and Nancy are attracted to each other, but are from different worlds. She makes him want to cash out and run away with her, but if you’ve ever seen a gangster movie, you know that cashing out always comes at a price.
Johnny O’Clock is the third of many noirs to star Powell after he shed his image as a boyish Depression-era crooner and appeared as Philip Marlowe in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944). Johnny O’Clock gives Powell a chance to craft a more three-dimensional character than he had a chance to in either Murder, My Sweet or Dmytryk’s Cornered (1945), and he’s mostly successful, although he didn’t seem fully up to the challenge of some of the more emotional moments in the film’s climax. (Powell was a breezy and charming actor who could project toughness and nastiness when he had to, but raw, naked emotion wasn’t one of the tools in his actor’s toolbox.)
While the story’s twists and turns are sometimes hard to follow, the actors are all good, and enjoyable to watch. Lee J. Cobb’s most famous role is probably as Lt. Kinderman in The Exorcist (1973), so it was fun to see him in a similar role, more than 25 years earlier.
Writer-director Rossen has a fuller vision of his criminal demi-monde that we see in most ’40s noirs, and his characters are convincing within its context. I really liked Johnny O’Clock, and I’d love to see proper DVD releases of more of Dick Powell’s film noirs in the future. I had to watch this one on a janky DVD-R recorded off of television.