Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Johnny O'Clock (1947)

Director: Robert Rossen                                  Writer: Robert Rossen
Film Score: George Duning                              Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Starring: Dick Powell, Evelyn Keyes, Lee J. Cobb and Thomas Gomez

After a solid career as a song and dance man during the Depression, Dick Powell remade himself as a noir tough guy in the post-war years, beginning with his breakout performance in Murder, My Sweet. That began a string of similar films for the actor, some of them much better than others. Johnny O’Clock, for Columbia, casts Powell as the bad guy, sort of, an amoral casino manager who’s only out for himself. This was the directorial debut for the great Robert Rossen, who also takes on the writing chores as well. The screenplay is from a story by Milton Holmes, who was also an associate producer on the picture. Rossen has a terrific cast. Along with Powell is the powerful Lee J. Cobb as the dedicated homicide detective. The distinctive character actor Thomas Gomez in onboard, as is the beautiful Evelyn Keyes. The other notable actor is Jeff Chandler in his first role, playing a bit part as one of Gomez’s hoods. This was also the first time that a film score by George Dunning earned him a screen credit, and he eventually moved on to a lengthy career as a second-tier film and television composer.

The film begins with Lee J. Cobb staring up at a clock in the street in front of a hotel. Once inside he flashes his badge at the desk clerk and then goes looking for Dick Powell. A professional gambler in town has been shot dead by police detective Jim Bannon. Powell runs a gambling club himself, and since Cobb thinks there’s something wrong with Bannon’s shooting he wants Powell to give him some evidence to put the dirty cop away. But Powell knows that Bannon works for his boss, and isn’t about to make a move yet. The club’s owner is Thomas Gomez and his girl is Ellen Drew. She used to have a relationship with Powell and would like to again, but he’s not moving on that either. While Gomez and Bannon are discussing a deal, Powell chats with hatcheck girl Nina Foch and tells her the bad news, that Bannon is done with her. The next morning the police fish Bannon’s suit coat out of the water, trace it back to Foch, and Cobb finds her dead in her apartment with the gas on, an apparent suicide. When her sister, Evelyn Keyes, comes to town, Powell tells her to forget about it and move on, but both Keyes and Cobb are looking for Bannon, who is missing and seems to be the only key to Foch’s death.

Though Rossen would go on to do some brilliant work, most notably in The Hustler with Paul Newman, this is not a great film. The weakness is decidedly the script. At some point the disparity between the action on the screen and what is coming out of the speakers is just too great, which is a shame. Everyone seems wasted in the picture, with dialogue that is just too insipid to be believable. I can see what Rossen was trying for, a poetic screenplay like something from Raymond Chandler or like Force of Evil a year later, which also costarred Thomas Gomez. But it’s not. The name of Powell’s character, Johnny O’Clock, feels like a contrivance. All of the characters remark on its oddness, but by the end of the film, when Evelyn Keyes is saying it in every other sentence, it feels like it should be part of a drinking game. Cobb goes for the same sort of hangdog determination he used in Boomerang, but the script just doesn’t support it. Powell comes off as almost comedic at times because the script lets him down in the same way. It’s too bad. The film looks good and has some wonderful actors, but the screenplay for Johnny O’Clock is just too weak to make it anything more than highly polished B movie.

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