Columbia Noir: Johnny O’Clock (1947)

cn3aOne of the pleasures of this series of Columbia film noir being released in these Indicator boxsets is the recurring talent in front and behind the screen, thanks to the studio system prevalent at the time (the talent tied to studio contracts). Hence here again we get Nina Foch of Escape in the Fog and The Undercover Man, and Lee J.Cobb of The Garment Jungle, both of whom will also appear in the next film in this third Columbia Noir set, The Dark Past. And we get another George Dunning score (5 Against The House, Tight Spot, The Mob, The Undercover Man etc) too. There’s all these connections between the films.

Anyway, Johnny O’Clock was great, a really good noir. I think it was the cast that made it so special; this film is another example of just good Lee J Cobb was; a fantastic character actor, he’s great here as Detective Inspector Koch, who floats around Johnny O’Clock (Dick Powell) convinced Johnny is the likeliest culprit for a murder that just seems to get murkier. In the event, Johnny is quite innocent, but suffers from association: his business partner is a crook under pressure from a bent cop who wants a part of the business. Meanwhile Johnny finds himself ‘suffering’ the attentions of three beautiful women which, as this is a noir, can only mean trouble. While some of us men can only dream of that kind of ‘trouble’ it does prove to be Johnny’s undoing.

Nina Foch actually has only a minor role in the film, as Harriet Hobson, although its her death that sets the domino’s falling in on Johnny. Eveleyn Keyes, as Nina’s sister Nancy, set’s Johnny’s pulse racing as she arrives in town questioning what happened to her sister. Keyes is pretty fine indeed, but the femme fatale of the piece is actually Johnny’s ex, Nelle (Ellen Drew) who still holds a torch for Johnny while now being married to Johnny’s business partner/mobster Guido Marchettis (Thomas Gomez). Its quite a tangled web, especially when the crooked cop trying to muscle Johnny out of Marchettis’ casino business is found dead too.

Ellen Drew stole the show for me as temptress Nelle, usually drunk but draping herself sensuously around lounge furniture and men, teasing and laughing. I’m not certain why exactly, but there was just something irresistible about Drew; she quite fascinated me, and absolutely convinced as a beauty that consumes Marchittis with jealous rage and insecurity, while her drunken state is perhaps triggered by feelings that her move upwards from Johnny to Guido was a mistake. Is it just me, or is part of the appeal of these movies of this period that women look like women, are dressed and wearing make-up that heightens their sexuality in what I dare say could be described as traditional/old-fashioned (or possibly sexist)? I continue to be horrified, mind, by just how frequently the women persist in lighting-up and smoking: another indication of the times and social practices of the day of course.

Its quite possible that the least interesting character in the film is Johnny O’Clock; Dick Powell is fine but he isn’t helped by a character that, by his nature, has to remain aloof and confident, its unfortunate that it leaves him a less emphatic ‘doomed’ character than some noir protagonists. Likewise he suffers by comparison to Cobb, who quietly steals every scene he is in, in just that way Cobb did in his every role. His performance is a masterclass in using props and the set around him, he was really such a gifted actor, so charismatic: one of the greats. 

There is a subtle charge/suggestion of homosexuality between Johnny and his personal assistant/man-friend Charlie (John Kellogg): its naturally unspoken as you’d expect in a film of the time but Charlie spends an awful long time in Johnny’s apartment, waking Johnny in his bedroom and preparing his breakfast, and I wondered if the reason why he suddenly turns on Johnny is because he doesn’t approve of Johnny’s interest in Nancy. I’m actually surprised by how much homoerotic subtext filters in so many of these noir, but its an element, deliberate or not, that proves a further example of just how subversive and complex this genre can be. 

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