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. 

Columbia Noir: The Undercover Man (1949)

cnoir1undContinuing my posts regards Indicator’s wonderful noir collection Columbia Noir #1, we come to the second entry, Joseph H Lewis’ The Undercover Man, starring Glenn Ford as the titular hero… except, well, here’s where I return to that old chestnut of preconceptions, as my experience of this film was frustrated by expecting one thing, and getting quite another. In my defence, the title really is a glaring misnomer; it suggests an undercover cop or FBI agent infiltrating a criminal network and undoing it from within, and this film is nothing of the sort. In the end, this proved to be a very fine film regardless of the distractions from my misconceptions, but I’m certainly beginning to think that I’ll only get the very best from this set when I return for second viewings. 

Director Joseph Lewis would later go on to direct The Big Combo (1955), which is a beautifully-shot film full of noir visual tropes, so much so that its possibly a definitive noir and a perfect film for someone to watch in order to ‘get’ what a noir looks like. The Undercover Man has very few such visual flourishes, is definitely far less stylistic. I remember that The Big Combo teased that bad guys are better lovers and that perhaps strait-laced honest good guys were less interesting to women, and that the films homosexual hitmen suggested a twisted complexity hidden under the surface (much like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks many years later would explore the shadowy underbelly of suburban ‘decent’ American life). The Undercover Man lacks any such pretence or suggestion, and indeed as I have noted, actually refuses to live up to the promise of its own title.

Glenn Ford stars as treasury agent Frank Warren who is tasked to undo a powerful mob boss named ‘The Big Fellow’ who we never actually see other than in a fleeting reverse shot. Dramatically, this rather undermines the film somewhat, removing a lot of tension from the film and the friction of seeing Warren and his target even in the same room. This wasn’t entirely from choice, as the film was curtailed by the Production Code of the time which dictated that any film ‘dealing with the life of a notorious criminal of current or recent times’ could not use that criminals name for fear of glamorising or indirectly popularising that individual or his activities. The Undercover Man is actually about the treasury’s real-life pursuit and successful incarceration of Al Capone, but you wouldn’t really know it, as the film was even forbade from mentioning the city of Chicago, and its only really at the end that the penny drops regards what we’ve actually been watching. 

Ford is very good, as ever. When I was a kid he was one of my very first ‘favourite’ actors, as he seemed to appear in a lot of the films airing on television during my childhood (I recall my pleasure at seeing him appear in the ‘new’ film Superman: The Movie after so many instances of only being seen in old b&w movies). He appears in an earlier Indicator noir release, the brilliant The Big Heat (1953) which is another great Blu-ray disc well worth searching out. He’s the embodiment of the all-American, decent guy, quietly solid and dependable in the face of adversity: I get the feeling he could do this stuff in his sleep, but that’s possibly underappreciating the work he’s doing. Some of the greatest actors never look like they’re acting, managing to avoid drawing attention to themselves: the opposite of those perhaps more famous actors who just seem to be showing off all the time, with performances that actually often detract from the films they are in. Like Lewis’ later The Big Combo, this film seems (almost accidentally in this case) to suggest that good guys are pretty boring and its the bad guys that are more interesting- very noir. Nina Foch returns from the previous disc in this set, Escape in the Fog, but I have to confess I wouldn’t have recognised her (possibly because that film left such a little impression). Here she plays Frank Warren’s wife, Judith, and she leaves a much better account of herself here in a much better role even though she has less screen time. 

Once I realised this film really wasn’t going to be the film its title suggests, I really quite enjoyed it. The film suffers from that lack of tension from not actually putting ‘The Big Fellow’ onscreen (an off-screen bad guy always makes for an awkward foil): simply compare this to The Untouchables approach of actually showing Al Capone (and casting Robert De Niro, no less) and while The Undercover Man is likely more historically accurate, the latter film is a more satisfying, albeit traditional, film experience. Which is not to disparage The Undercover Man‘s own pleasures, its just a very different way of telling essentially the same story and an interesting comparison of different films and the different eras they were made in.

Columbia Noir: Escape in the Fog (1945)

escIndicator really seems to be the benchmark for Blu-ray boxsets: its Hammer sets have been outstanding and the label’s attention to quality continues with this first box in a series of Noir collections (Columbia Noir#2 is due in February). I’ve been loving this box as I’m something of a noir nut, but anyway, we’ll start this series of posts with the first in the set and, er, possibly the worst of the bunch.

First up in Indicator’s Columbia Noir #1 boxset is Budd Boetticher’s 1945 noir Escape in the Fog, which is a fine example, for both good and ill, of the old ‘supporting feature’ or ‘b-movie’: short low-budget films that were attached to proper feature films to form a double-bill presentation: I suppose a night at the pictures was genuinely a night at the pictures back then.

Barely an hour long, its telling that Escape in the Fog‘s pretty preposterous plot struggles to fill even that paltry running-time. Eileen Carr (Nina Foch) is staying in a wartime convalescent home just outside San Francisco, recovering from some nervous breakdown – she has a terrifyingly vivid dream of being on the Golden Gate Bridge late on a very foggy night,  witnessing a man being set upon by some thugs that bundle him out of a taxi cab; as the man is about to be murdered she wakes with a scream that attracts people rushing from the other rooms checking that she is okay. One of these people who she never met before is the very man she was dreaming about being murdered. Blind coincidence or spooky premonition? 

Actually if it had been neither of those things but instead an elaborate sting operation to pull the man of her ‘dream’, Barry Malcolm (William Wright) into some web of intrigue of her own design then this film would have been much more interesting. In the typical illogic of these b’s, her sudden talent for premonition is never explained and no-one really remarks about how incredible it is. This seems indicative of the films lack of ambition to be anything more than what it is: a low-budget, low-effort ‘b’; that only exists to be a cheap support for a main feature. This is the point at which I have to confess my complaints feel unfair even as I write them down- this film was never intended to be anything more than what it is. I suppose that, had it been by some twist of fate something that Hitchcock deemed worthy of attention, had he spun the premise into one of his own creations, it could have been much more than it is. It could have been something in the vein of Vertigo, an intense thriller that supposes some kind of witchcraft or psychic twist, or perhaps conclude more mundanely with some elaborate scheme to outwit a special agent and steal his secret plans?

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My failing seems to have been, that was just what I was doing, watching it- conceiving some more complex yarn half-expecting some diabolical twist but no such twist comes; it really is a very silly little effort. It seems frankly inevitable that the night of her dream is going to come to pass, and likewise that rather than be creeped out, the two of them fall into a relationship (he is after all, the ‘man of her dreams’). There’s the further leap of coincidence when we learn that Barry is a secret agent and that Hollywood Nazi’s are tailing him for secret papers: I mean, psychic wartime nurse recovering from a nervous breakdown, dashing secret agent, sneaky Nazi menace (a precursor for future decades of fascination with the enemy within, whether it be Nazis, Commies, Union provocateurs, Alien pod people, you name it, Americans seem to have plenty to be paranoid about) its hardly down-to-earth, gritty noir. More pulp wartime melodrama really than what I would consider ‘proper’ noir, but then again, that very definition of noir is a hoary old chestnut so I won’t question this films inclusion in this set too much.

I didn’t really find too much here worthy of praise. The acting is fairly pedestrian but that’s mostly down to the simple, formulaic script that piles coincidence upon coincidence: maybe there is a ‘reading’ of the film that the whole thing, start to finish is really just a dream (the premonition actually a dream within a dream) but that’s really just making excuses for it. Its clear that the film is hardly high-art, and it never pretends to be- its a b-movie, barely an hour long, not the place for intense characterisation or cohesive internal logic. Its wartime entertainment, good guys vs bad guys with some typical noirish visual tropes if not wholly noir sensibilities. It may well be that an eventual re-watch will possibly improve my opinion, and that at present I’m being rather unfair. Thankfully there are much better films in this Columbia Noir set.