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Sunday, 20 November 2016

Johnny O'Clock (1947)

Director: Robert Rossen
Writer: Robert Rossen, from an original story by Milton Holmes
Stars: Dick Powell and Evelyn Keyes

It’s ironic that the title of this film is never fully explained. It’s a catchy one, especially when compared to the relentlessly generic titles that were usually given to films noir, and it sticks in the brain. It surely contributed to my choice of this picture, which I had not seen before, to remember the career of Evelyn Keyes, its leading lady, on what would have been her one hundredth birthday. Yet, beyond being the current name of its lead character (he has others, for reasons never explained but clearly dubious), it never finds a real purpose. Mostly it just serves to keep time in mind, as do the superb opening shot of a man checking his watch against the large clock above him and the importance of a pair of expensive watches within the story. The title is much catchier than the movie itself, a lot more memorable and, arguably, of a higher quality than the material it advertises. After all, it did a great job of suckering me in, as I’d heard it before often and so sought it out for this project.

I’m happy that I watched Johnny O’Clock though, because it’s an important and interesting film, even if the importance is mostly in the presence of Robert Rossen as writer and director; he wrote the script from an original story by Milton Holmes. He was already known as a writer, having penned a host of screenplays for Warner Brothers in the 1930s, including Marked Woman, Racket Busters and The Roaring Twenties; his greatest up to this point may have been A Walk in the Sun. However, this was his first time to sit in the director’s chair and, while he would never be prolific there, his ten films as a director include classics like All the King’s Men and The Hustler, both of which landed him Oscar nominations for Best Director; the former won three from its seven nods, including Best Picture, but Rossen lost to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives. I wonder how much of a learning experience this was for him, given that he was firing on all cylinders later in 1947 with Body and Soul, a film which he directed but did not write.
To my mind, Rossen is the weakest link here. While he (and perhaps Holmes) deserve great credit for the quintessential film noir dialogue which fills the script to bursting, this is methodical direction of a methodical script and there’s just no passion in it, even when the actors do their best to generate some. Methodical works well for Lee J. Cobb who, as the capable Inspector Koch, drives everything through his investigations of the various deaths that pepper the story. It doesn’t work well for Dick Powell as Johnny O’Clock or for the other key characters: his partner, his assistant and the three ladies with important parts to play in proceedings. Each of them, in different ways, feel like they’re bridling at the steady pace which Rossen forces onto them and aching to break out of it and into their own momentum. Two of the ladies want to speed things up while the third wants to slow it down. Johnny wants control just because, while his partner is alternately active and passive. None are happy with the pace as it is.

That’s not to say that the script isn’t cleverly written. The first nine minutes are spent at Johnny’s hotel in only two scenes: one in which Charlie, his personal assistant, wakes him up and another in which Harriet Hobson and Insp. Koch, separately but together, meet him downstairs. In other hands, this would be throwaway material but, in Rossen’s, everything has a purpose. They set the stage with a murder, establish the characters of five important people (one of whom we haven’t even met yet) and set in motion the events that will constitute our story, the latter from a number of different perspectives. It’s textbook stuff and the only issue is that it misleads us to believe that the core of the movie will contain a man named Chuck Blayden. Blayden is a dirty cop, one who has just shot a gambler as he supposedly resisted arrest. Johnny knows Blayden (and the gambler as well), Harriet loves him (and wears the bruises to prove it) and Koch wants him off the force (and Johnny to help make that happen).
Another clever aspect to the script is what meaning is brought by the three ladies of importance. Harriet is the first of them, a girl who checks hats and coats at the club which Johnny helps to run. She’s a lovely little thing, played to glorious effect by Nina Foch. She’s always reminded me of a more angelic, less Teutonic Marlene Dietrich but that works especially well in this film as Harriet is a simple girl, both in outlook and, perhaps, in mind too. ‘Old enough. Not smart enough,’ explains her sister. She’s a good girl, but she loves a bad man and can’t stop loving him. That leads to her suicide which, of course, isn’t any such thing. She can be seen as the present for Johnny O’Clock, clearly a man of dubious history who is nonetheless doing an honest job with a clean record. The film noir genre, perhaps more closely associated with black and white than any other, never saw things in anything but shades of grey. Most characters here are straightforward, but Johnny is fashioned from quintessentially deep film noir complexity.

If Harriet is his present, a moment in time where he’s a good man doing honest work, Nelle Marchettis is his past. She’s the trophy wife of Johnny’s partner, Guido (pronounced Geedo), a more traditionally slimy businessman who may or may not be operating in isolation from organised crime. Given that actor Thomas Gomez was 42 and weighed nearly three hundred pounds, but vivacious actress Ellen Drew was a decade younger and reminds of both Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth, it’s hardly surprising that Nelle has a thing for Johnny instead, who buys a fresh flower every morning for his buttonhole and is played by the dapper Dick Powell, who doesn’t look a year older than Gomez even if he was. I don’t believe that it’s ever said outright but it’s certainly firmly hinted that Nelle and Johnny had a relationship in the past and her attempts to restart that are so overt that it’s difficult to believe that her screen husband doesn’t realise it. That’s one reason why Guido acts like he’s Johnny’s boss but we never buy it.
Our birthday girl, Evelyn Keyes, arrives just shy of a third of the way into the film. She’s Nancy Hobson, Harriet’s elder sister, who flies into town after her death to take care of affairs. She meets Koch first, who’s ahead of everybody else throughout, but falls for Johnny. While the ‘club’ he runs with Guido looks much more like a casino, he tells her that he’s no gambler. ‘Gambler’s a guy who takes a chance,’ he says, though he soon takes a chance on her. Nancy’s first scenes hint at her being a femme fatale, but that role is much better played by Nelle Marchettis. Really, she’s the future in this triptych, the possibility of one for Johnny that’s entirely above board. They’re quick to fall into romance, perhaps much too quick, but we can buy into it happening and the various things happening around it that flavour it in film noir terms. Nancy isn’t the looker that Harriet was but she’s hardly bad on the eyes and she has the depth that was denied her screen sister. Keyes played a substantial character, if not a substantial part.

Keyes was a capable actress who successfully avoided typecasting but failed to escape her most famous role; it eventually found its way into the title of her autobiography, Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister: My Lively Life In and Out of Hollywood. The affairs documented within it include those with three of her fellow 2016 centenarians: Glenn Ford, Sterling Hayden and Kirk Douglas; though none of those featured amongst her four marriages, she did wed film directors Charles Vidor and John Huston. It’s debatable as to whether her life eclipsed her career, but the latter didn’t take off to the degree it deserved. Her favourite of her own films was Mrs. Mike in 1949; given that she plays the Bostonian wife of Dick Powell’s Mountie in the remote north of Canada, it’s not difficult for the more romantic among us to see that as an alternate future to Johnny O’Clock. Certainly, it would be tough to argue against the ending of this picture being weaker than the events which led up to it.
While many of her career highlights were in lead roles of B-movies, she did good work in some major films too. After playing that supporting role of Suellen O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, she landed a contract with Columbia, who had her play an ingenue in Here Comes Mr. Jordan and the female lead in The Jolson Story, amongst others. Personally, I’d call out The Face Behind the Mask, a dramatic crime story from 1941 with a tinge of horror, in which she gives great support to an even better Peter Lorre. Her versatility is ably highlighted by this film noir coming right after The Jolson Story and right before The Mating of Millie, a comedy in which she played the title character. She retired in 1956 after playing Tom Ewell’s absent wife in The Seven Year Itch, but she never really quit acting. Her final film role was as a witch in Wicked Stepmother, also a final film for Bette Davis, and she still had a third appearance to come on television’s Murder She Wrote, playing different characters each time out.

As a versatile actress of consistent quality, it’s perhaps appropriate that she’s consistently good in this film, even in support of an actor who has a little more trouble with his role. There are points where Dick Powell is nuanced and perfect, but others in which I wasn’t convinced he understood his character (or the script’s take on it). Perhaps he had trouble being the lead but not the driving force behind the film; that’s Insp. Koch all the way. Johnny is one of those hardboiled characters who sits back and lets things be as they must be, but usually those characters were pulling strings behind the scenes and he isn’t. For half the film, I imagined Johnny as being rather like Rick Blaine from Casablanca as played by William Powell; that’s not quite as palatable as it is intriguing and he’s not given the grounding. Powell is great while standing up to Koch and delivering fantastic film noir dialogue, whether talking to cops or ladies. He’s less believable during emotional scenes, where he’s too cold, or during the end, where he’s out of character.
That ending is a down point. As carefully as the plot is constructed, it’s not complex enough to mask whodunit and why. The finalé needed more than the solving of a crime but what’s provided doesn’t feel satisfactory. Mostly it’s the writing and I can understand if the acting errors came from that. There are a number of other details that don’t feel resolved either. Clearly Johnny wasn’t born an O’Clock but we’re never given his real surname or any reason why he chose this particular one, especially as it screams to have meaning. Perhaps it was just one of many elements to focus on a theme of the passage of time, which was promptly written away from without the due diligence done in clean up to avoid misleading us. That leads us back to Robert Rossen, an established writer of screenplays who debuted here as a director. I wonder if the best of this picture was due to his experience as the former but the worst was due to his lack of experience as the latter. Certainly it works best as a starting point to his career.

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