The 1947 film, Johnny O’Clock, invites us to take a behind-the-scenes look at the sleazy and sordid world of casino management. If that doesn’t intrigue you, just consider that the man character is named Johnny O’Clock.
Seriously, that’s a really kickass name. I have to admit that, if my last name was O’Clock, I would be tempted to name my child Four Twenty. But, that said, Johnny is a pretty good name too. On the one hand, he’s got an all-American name like Johnny but he’s also got a last name — O’Clock — that promises mystery and danger. Johnny O’Clock is also played by Dick Powell, who was always good at playing tough guys who had a heart of gold. (Along with appearing in several noir films, Dick Powell was also the first actor to ever play the famed detective, Philip Marlowe.)
Johnny O’Clock is a partner in a casino with Guido Marchettis (Thomas Gomez). Johnny and Guido are longtime business partners who find the future of their casino threatened when a hat-check girl named Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch) dies under mysterious circumstances. Even though the crime scene was clearly set up to make it appear as if Harriet committed suicide, it doesn’t take Inspector Koch (Lee J. Cobb) long to figure out that Harriet was actually murdered.
Who killed Harriet?
Was it her boyfriend, Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon)? Chuck is a corrupt cop who has been trying to convince Guido to force Johnny out of the casino and instead hire Chuck instead.
Or is the murderer Guido’s wife, Nellie (Ellen Drew)? Nellie used to be Johnny’s girlfriend and, as soon becomes obvious, she still has feelings for him. When she attempted to give Johnny a romantic present, Johnny’s response was to give it to Harriet so that Harriet could return it. Did Johnny’s rejection of Nellie push her over the edge and did she take her anger out on Harriet?
Or maybe the murderer was Guido. Guido, after all, is a rather shady sort. Maybe Harriet discovered something that she shouldn’t have.
Then again, you could also say the same thing about Johnny O’Clock….
Inspector Koch isn’t the only person determined to get to the truth! Harriet’s sister, Nancy (Evelyn Keyes), also shows up and starts to investigate on her own. Soon, she and Johnny are falling in love but Johnny knows that the situation is too dangerous for either him or Nancy to stick around the casino. He starts to make plans to flee with her to South America but he’s got just a few things to do before they can leave….
Johnny O’Clock was the first film to be directed by Robert Rossen, who is often credited as being one of the most important filmmaers in development of American film noir. A year after Johnny O’Clock was released, Rossen’s All The King’s Men would win best picture. Rossen’s career was derailed when he was accused of being a communist and blacklisted in the 50s. Like Elia Kazan, Rossen initially took the fifth but he later relented and “named names” to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Though Rossen would later direct the Oscar-nominated The Hustler in 1962, it can be argued that Rossen’s career never recovered from either being blacklisted or from naming names.
Clocking in at 93 minutes, Johnny O’Clock is probably about 20 minutes too long and the murder mystery is never really as intriguing as you might hope it would be. On the positive side, the casino is stylish and the cast is full of noir talent. Dick Powell is a likable, if occasionally bull-headed, protagonist and Lee J. Cobb is well-cast as Inspector Koch. (The film has some fun contrasting the glitz of the casino with the shabbiness of Koch.) Burnett Guffey’s black-and-white cinematography gives the film a properly noirish look and, while the pace may be slow, the occasional bursts of action are well-handled. The scene where Johnny is nearly the victim of a drive-by shooting is particularly exciting. Johnny O’Clock is a flawed noir but the cast is good enough to hold the interest of fans of the genre.