Friday, April 12, 2013

Johnny O’Clock (Columbia, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Johnny O’Clock, in a rather crude download from that came from a cable-TV channel called Mystery and introduced some bizarre, vertiginous pans within scenes I doubt were in the film as originally released by Columbia Pictures in 1947. It’s a film I’d never seen before start-to-finish — I’d started watching it once in the 1970’s but turned it off midway through because I couldn’t make heads or tails of the plot. Guess what? I still can’t make heads or tails of the plot! It’s something about Johnny O’Clock (Dick Powell) — his weird last name is never explained, though we are told it’s just one of several aliases — who’s a junior partner in an illegal gambling casino in New York City. The senior partner is Pete Marchettis (Thomas Gomez, quite a change from his Columbo-like performance as a cop in Phantom Lady and for some reason billed as S. Thomas Gomez in the credits), who married Johnny’s old girlfriend Nelle (Ellen Drew). The business of a three-way love triangle between the boss, his assistant and the girl the assistant loved until she dumped him for the boss (and the boss’s money) was an obvious ripoff from Columbia’s film noir mega-hit the year before, Gilda (with Rita Hayworth as the girl, Glenn Ford as the assistant and George Macready as the boss), but the main intrigue in Johnny O’Clock is the search for a missing man, a corrupt cop named Chuck Blayden (who remains mostly a spectral presence throughout the film even though actor Jim Bannon from the I Love a Mystery series is credited with playing him) who was apparently bribed by Marchettis and O’Clock to kill off their competitors and then announce to the media that he had shot all these rival gamblers while they were “resisting arrest.” (It’s essentially the U.S. equivalent of Mexican prisoners being shot and the authorities saying they were “attempting to escape,” which actually became the origin of a slang term, ley fuga.)

The search for Blayden is being led by an honest cop, homicide inspector Koch (Lee J. Cobb, his acting refreshingly free of the Method affectations that crept into it later), who gets involved when Blayden’s (and, occasionally, O’Clock’s — at least that’s the hint we get) girlfriend, Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch — the Film Noir Encyclopedia gives her and her sister’s last name as “Hobbs” but “Hobson” is clearly the name spoken on the soundtrack), is found dead in her apartment. The police originally believe it was suicide since she was found asphyxiated and the gas in the oven was left on, but eventually an autopsy reveals that there was also poison in her system and therefore the police conclude she was murdered because if she’d been planning to commit suicide, she wouldn’t have taken poison and stuck her head in the oven. (This is actually a rather silly plot point; many real-life suicides have chosen more than one method so even if one method didn’t kill them, the other would.) Johnny O’Clock was directed by Robert Rossen, who was attempting to make the same career transition from screenwriting to directing Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder and John Huston had done by taking a script he’d co-written (with producer Milton Holmes) and shooting it himself. It was Rossen’s first film as director, and it reveals both the big influences on his head-space as a filmmaker: the burgeoning noir cycle (which he’d helped kick off as a writer with his script for Warner Bros.’ 1936 production Marked Woman, one of the most important proto-noirs) and the Italian neo-realist movement in general and Roberto Rossellini in particular.

What’s weird about Johnny O’Clock is that it’s a series of character studies with virtually no plot; Rossen throws standard noir clichés (by 1947 film noir had been around long enough to have a standard cliché bank) at us willy-nilly, linking them only peripherally. The female lead, Harriet Hobson’s sister Nancy (Evelyn Keyes, who at least as she’s made up here looks enough like Nina Foch we believe in them as sisters), doesn’t enter until well past the half-hour point: she’s a chorus member in a touring musical and the telegram summoning her to New York to I.D. her dead sister comes to her while her show is in Harrisburg. (This couldn’t help but remind me of the famous anecdote in which Sam Goldwyn told George Balanchine that the ballet he’d choreographed for The Goldwyn Follies was so complex “the miners in Harrisburg wouldn’t get it.” Balanchine replied, “Mr. Goldwyn, I am not President Roosevelt and I don’t care what the miners in Harrisburg think.” Then he did a double-take and added, “Besides, Mr. Goldwyn, there are no miners in Harrisburg. I’ve been there!”) Rossen seems to have been going out of his way to make as plotless a movie as he could get away with at a major Hollywood studio; instead of supporting a strong storyline (as in Dick Powell’s best noir vehicles, Murder, My Sweet, Cornered and Cry Danger), the noir stylistics are the point in and of themselves — which oddly makes Johnny O’Clock a quite modern-seeming movie, since in today’s films we’re used to seeing sequences put in more for their striking visual virtuosity or high action content than for any relevance to a storyline. It’s recently been restored and revived, and not surprisingly it’s got better reviews now than it did when it was new.

After nine reels of oddly slow-moving scenes Rossen and Holmes suddenly throw an action climax at us: Marchettis turns out to have murdered both Blayden (after he’s been missing through most of the film his body turns up in the river about two-thirds of the way through) and Harriet — though there’s a hint that Harriet was actually killed by Nelle out of jealousy (over whom?) — and he wants to eliminate Johnny as well, only Johnny demands his share of the casino’s profits in return for breaking up the business partnership. Marchettis lets Johnny into his safe and gives him the cash (at this point I thought he’d actually lock Johnny in the safe in a higher-tech version of The Cask of Amontillado) but then shoots him when he tries to leave with the money. There’s a ferocious gun battle in which Marchettis is killed and Johnny is wounded, and Nelle walks in and states her intention to tell the police that Johnny killed Marchettis in cold blood. Johnny takes Koch hostage and plans to escape until Nancy — who since has become Johnny’s girlfriend — talks him out of it and he turns himself in to Koch instead. Then a “The End” title comes up superimposed on the final scene. Johnny O’Clock isn’t a bad movie, but it’s also not that interesting; critic Carl Macek said the problem with it was that Dick Powell’s character “was not obviously vulnerable” — and indeed he comes off as a kind of noir superman instead of the two-bit detective Raymond Chandler vividly created and Powell brought to life in Murder, My Sweet — and therefore the film lacks “a sense of fear and powerlessness.” But the real problem with it is that, for all the vivid stylistics of Rossen’s direction and Burnett Guffey’s cinematography, it lacks much sense — i.e., plot coherence — at all!