30 Days of Noir #29: Johnny O’Clock (dir by Robert Rossen)


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.

Cleaning Out the DVR #17: Film Noir Festival 3


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To take my mind off the sciatic nerve pain I was suffering last week, I immersed myself on the dark world of film noir. The following quartet of films represent some of the genre’s best, filled with murder, femme fatales, psychopaths, and sleazy living. Good times!!

I’ll begin chronologically with BOOMERANG (20th Century-Fox 1947), director Elia Kazan’s true-life tale of a drifter (an excellent Arthur Kennedy ) falsely accused of murdering a priest in cold blood, and the doubting DA (Dana Andrews ) who fights an uphill battle against political corruption to exonerate him. Filmed on location in Stamford, CT and using many local residents as extras and bit parts, the literate script by Richard Murphy (CRY OF THE CITY, PANIC IN THE STREETS, COMPULSION) takes a realistic look behind the scenes at an American mid-sized city, shedding light into it’s darker corners.

Andrews is solid as the honest…

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Happy Birthday Peter Lorre: THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK (Columbia 1941)


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In honor of Cracked Rear Viewer’s second anniversary, I’m re-presenting my first post from June 26, 2015. I’ve re-edited it and added some pictures, something I didn’t know how to do at first. My, how times change! Anyway, I hope you enjoy this look at an early noir classic. (Coincidentally, this is also Mr. Lorre’s birthday!)

The sinister star Peter Lorre was born in Hungary on June 26, 1904. He became a big screen sensation as the child killer in Fritz Lang’s German classic M (1931), and like many Jews in Germany at the time, fled the Nazi regime, landing in Britain in 1933. Lorre worked with Alfred Hitchcock there in the original THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, then immigrated to America, starring in films like MAD LOVE  , CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, and the Mr. Moto series. In 1940, the actor starred in what many consider the first film noir, STRANGER ON THE…

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Hittin’ the Dusty Trail with THE DESPERADOES (Columbia 1943)


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There’s a lot to like about THE DESPERADOES. Not that it’s anything groundbreaking; it’s your standard Western outing with all the standard clichés. you’ve got your two pals, one the sheriff (Randolph Scott ), the other an outlaw (Glenn Ford ). You’ve got your gambling hall dame (Claire Trevor ) and sweet young thing (Evelyn Keyes) vying for the good/bad guy’s attention. You’ve got your goofy comical sidekick (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams). You’ve got your  supposedly respectable heavy (Porter Hall ), a mean heavy (Bernard Nedell), and a heavy who has a change of heart (Edgar Buchanan). What makes this one different is the movie seems to know it’s clichéd, giving a nod and a wink to its audience as it merrily makes its way down that familiar dusty trail.

Based on a novel by pulp writer Max Brand (who also created the Dr. Kildare series), this was one of Columbia’s big releases of the year, and…

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Cleaning Out The DVR #5: Around The World In 80 Days (dir by Michael Anderson)


Last night, as a part of my effort to clean out my DVR by watching and reviewing 38 movies in 10 days, I watched the 1956 Best Picture winner, Around The World In 80 Days.

Based on a novel by Jules Verne, Around The World In 80 Days announces, from the start, that it’s going to be a spectacle.  Before it even begins telling its story, it gives us a lengthy prologue in which Edward R. Murrow discusses the importance of the movies and Jules Verne.  He also shows and narrates footage from Georges Méliès’s A Trip To The Moon.  Seen today, the most interesting thing about the prologue (outside of A Trip To The Moon) is the fact that Edward R. Murrow comes across as being such a pompous windbag.  Take that, Goodnight and Good Luck.

Once we finally get done with Murrow assuring us that we’re about to see something incredibly important, we get down to the actual film.  In 1872, an English gentleman named Phileas Fogg (played by David Niven) goes to London’s Reform Club and announces that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.  Four other members of the club bet him 20,000 pounds that he cannot.  Fogg takes them up on their wager and soon, he and his valet, Passepartout (Cantinflas) are racing across the world.

Around The World in 80 Days is basically a travelogue, following Fogg and Passepartout as they stop in various countries and have various Technicolor adventures.  If you’re looking for a serious examination of different cultures, this is not the film to watch.  Despite the pompousness of Murrow’s introduction, this is a pure adventure film and not meant to be taken as much more than pure entertainment.  When Fogg and Passepartout land in Spain, it means flamenco dancing and bullfighting.  When they travel to the U.S., it means cowboys and Indians.  When they stop off in India, it means that they have to rescue Princess Aouda (Shirley MacClaine!!!) from being sacrificed.  Aouda ends up joining them for the rest of their journey.

Also following them is Insepctor Fix (Robert Newton), who is convinced that Fogg is a bank robber.  Fix follows them across the world, just waiting for his chance to arrest Fogg and disrupt his race across the globe.

But it’s not just Inspector Fix who is on the look out for the world travelers.  Around The World In 80 Days is full of cameos, with every valet, sailor, policeman, and innocent bystander played by a celebrity.  (If the movie were made today, Kim Kardashian and Chelsea Handler would show up at the bullfight.)  I watch a lot of old movies so I recognized some of the star cameos.  For instance, it was impossible not to notice Marlene Dietrich hanging out in the old west saloon, Frank Sinatra playing piano or Peter Lorre wandering around the cruise ship.  But I have to admit that I missed quite a few of the cameos, much as how a viewer 60 years in the future probably wouldn’t recognize Kim K or Chelsea Handler in our hypothetical 2016 remake.  However, I could tell whenever someone famous showed up on screen because the camera would often linger on them and the celeb would often look straight at the audience with a “It’s me!” look on their face.

Around The World in 80 Days is usually dismissed as one of the lesser best picture winners and it’s true that it is an extremely long movie, one which doesn’t necessarily add up to much beyond David Niven, Cantinflas, and the celeb cameos.  But, while it may not be Oscar worthy, it is a likable movie.  David Niven is always fun to watch and he and Cantinflas have a nice rapport.  Shirley MacClaine is not exactly believable as an Indian princess but it’s still interesting to see her when she was young and just starting her film career.

Add to that, Around The World In 80 Days features Jose Greco in this scene:

Around The World In 80 Days may not rank with the greatest films ever made but it’s still an entertaining artifact of its time.  Whenever you sit through one of today’s multi-billion dollar cinematic spectacles, remember that you’re watching one of the descendants of Around The World In 80 Days.

Revisiting an Old Fiend: THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK


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Recently I switched from cable to DirecTV. As part of my package, I’ve officially joined the DVR generation. This is like being in heaven for an old movie buff like myself. Now I can record films of interest no matter what time they’re on and enjoy them at my leisure. Especially those older black & white gems that air mainly in the wee-wee hours. I can catch up with some classics I’ve only read about over the years but never had the opportunity to view, and those I only have vague memories of watching decades ago on snowy looking UHF channels.

THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK falls into the latter category. This 1941 Columbia film was directed by the criminally underrated Frenchman Robert Florey and stars everybody’s favorite madman Peter Lorre. The movie’s a very early example of 40s film noir, as was another Lorre vehicle, 1940’s  STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR.

Lorre plays Janos Szabo, a newly arrived Hungarian immigrant watchmaker, come to America to find work and live the American dream. He’s befriended by police Lt. O’Hara (Don Beddoe), who buys the naïve newcomer a five dollar lunch and directs him to the Excelsior Palace, a low rent hotel. When another border’s negligence causes the joint to go up in flames, Janos is trapped inside, and suffers a horrible disfigurement.

O’Hara feels responsible for the poor guy’s plight and writes a message on one of his calling cards for Janos to contact him when he’s released from the hospital. Now unable to find work due to his terribly scarred visage, Janos goes to the waterfront, contemplating suicide. He meets up with a petty crook named Dinky, who takes a liking to Janos. Dinky has a safe job lined up but falls ill, and asks Janos to take his place. The Hungarian, good with his hands, takes care of business, When Dinky’s former comrades Benson and Watts show up wanting to know why they weren’t in on the score, the four decide to form a crime gang, with Janos (now nicknamed Johnny) as the ringleader. A crime wave ensues, baffling the police, and putting O’Hara under pressure to end the larcenous spree quickly as possible.

Janos wants the illicit dough so he can have plastic surgery and restore his features. A rubber mask is made from his passport photo for him to wear until the doctor returns. When the doc (an uncredited cameo by Frank Reicher, KING KONG’s Captain Englehorn)  finally does see Janos, he informs him that the facial nerves have suffered too much damage, and it would take fifteen years before any progress could be made!

Disheartened, Janos leaves the doctor’s office, where he (literally) bumps into Helen Williams. Helen is blind, but she can sense the goodness still inside the scarred master criminal. Eventually, Janos comes clean to her about his face, but not his illegal activities. Helen is played by the beautiful Evelyn Keyes, best known as Scarlet O’Hara’s Younger Sister (the name of her autobiography) in GONE WITH THE WIND.

Now in love with Helen, and with plenty of money stashed away, Janos decides to leave his life of crime behind and settle down in the country. This doesn’t sit well with his former cronies, especially Jeff, the gang’s new leader. When the cop’s calling card (remember?) is found in Janos’s old desk, they fear their former boss has turned stool pigeon. The gang beats and tortures Dinky, the only one who knows Janos’s whereabouts. Dinky spills the beans, and Jeff and company pay a visit to Janos and his new bride. While Jeff delivers a warning, the gang plants a bomb in his car, connected to the radio. Dinky gets dumped to the side of the road, badly beaten and shot, but manages to get to a phone and warn Janos. But it’s too late. While Helen’s unpacking the car, she wants to hear some music, turns on the radio, and KA-BOOM! She sadly dies in Janos’s arms.

Dinky’s still alive though, and tells Janos the gang has chartered a plane and are going on the lam. They take to the air and head west, unaware that Janos has ambushed the pilot and is flying the plane. He lands them smack in the middle of the Arizona desert and tells them he’s stranding them all there to die a slow, painful death. Soon after, O’Hara gets a hot tip (pun intended!)and flies west to discover a gruesome tableau. The gang members are all dead, including Janos, who’s been tied to the plane’s wing. O’Hara finds an explanation note in his little friend’s pocket, along with the five bucks for the lunch O’Hara bought him long ago.

Lorre is superb as a man trapped in circumstances beyond his control, showing a wider range of emotion beyond his standard pop-eyed psychopath roles. Keyes is also good as the doomed Helen, proving she could’ve been a much bigger star with better roles. FACE BEHIND THE MASK features plenty of familiar faces from the Mighty Columbia Arts Players brigade (Beddoe, George E Stone, Cy Schindell, John Tyrell, George McKay). The film’s a brisk 75 minutes of entertainment for lovers of 40s cinema in general, and Lorre in particular. The name Janos, by the way, was obviously inspired from the Roman god Janus, always depicted with two faces!

I’m glad I got to rewatch this movie and enjoy it without all that UHF snow.. I’ve got plenty more lined up in the DVR, and look forward to sharing my impressions of them with you, dear reader. So get that popcorn ready and let’s go to the show!