In this Columbia feature from writer/director Robert Rossen, our title character is played by Noir regular, Dick Powell. He’s a partner in a gambling house with Thomas Gomez and mainly serves as a pit boss who loves to see the “suckers” come in and leave their money behind at the roulette wheel and or dice and card games.
At a running time of 95 minutes the film starts with rock solid, Lee J. Cobb, as a Police Inspector looking to speak to Powell about a killing. A shady cop, Jim Bannon, has killed a gambler during an arrest and Cobb is looking for details. Powell is all spit and polish in his swank hotel apartment with the clothes to match and what appears to be a gunman, John Kellogg, as his man servant. He also has little use for “coppers” and isn’t overly forthcoming with Cobb’s questions.
“It’s over. Blow your nose and wipe your eyes.”
Firm advice from Powell to the lonely hat check girl at the casino played by Nina Foch. She’s pining over a broken relationship with the same shady cop that Cobb’s investigating. Of course she’s also got a thinly veiled crush on Powell as does Miss Ellen Drew who is practically throwing herself at him. This despite the fact that she’s married to his business partner, Gomez.
The mystery Cobb is looking into is only going to deepen when Foch turns up dead. An apparent suicide and Bannon goes missing after a meeting with Gomez. Since Miss Drew isn’t exactly to Powell’s liking and we need a leading lady, the plot will introduce us to Evelyn Keyes who has come to town after receiving the news of her younger sister’s death. If eyes are the window to one’s soul, there is little doubt that Powell and Keyes are instantly attracted to one another upon their first meeting. Keyes is looking for answers of her own as to just what would lead her kid sister to suicide and she’s hoping Powell has the answers.
It’s at this point of the film that a young, unbilled actor makes his appearance in the film attending a private poker game Gomez is hosting. It’s a dark haired Jeff Chandler and with his deep voice and good looks there’s little doubt that he made an impression on not just the ladies but film goers in general at the time. He easily stands out among those in the smaller roles and as we now know was destined for stardom. That’s Chandler below in the left corner.
Cobb has an ace of his own. He knows that Bannon has been murdered and he’s piecing things together with the guilt pointed at Powell for a number of reasons I’ll let you discover for yourself. Even if we all believe it’s Gomez who may want to squeeze his partner out of the business and has a serious problem containing his jealousy and suspicions that Powell and his wife Drew are carrying on an affair behind his back.
There’s a line in the film that caught my attention between Powell and Cobb. Powell accuses Cobb of being a Spiderman and spinning his web. Hmmmm. I had to check Wikipedia to see what year Peter Parker, aka, Spiderman made his debut. First appearance was August of 1962. Might Stan Lee have caught Johnny O’Clock on the late show earlier in the year? Just saying…..
Miss Keyes and Powell are going to let nature take it’s course and find themselves falling into each other’s arms while at the same time Gomez is convinced that Miss Drew has been playing around after finding an incriminating watch that she had secretly bought for Powell in order to woo him. For his part Powell wants noting to do with violence or killing but will have little choice as the noose tightens around his neck.
All while Cobb stands quietly in the wings waiting to make his arrest.
I have to say that Lee J. Conn underplays his role quite effectively and it’s almost as if his Inspector Koch is a trial run for his turn as Lt. Kinderman. The role he’d take on in 1973’s blockbuster, The Exorcist.
Leading man, Powell, plays it tough when he needs to though I’ll admit to preferring a number of other Noir favorites when given the chance. Apologies to fans of Mr. Powell. Not sure why I’ve never thought of this before but does Dick ever sound like William Powell. Close your eyes and give him a listen. It’s not a stretch to see the Thin Man in your mind’s eye.
Having graduated from Warner Brother screenplays, Marked Woman, The Roaring Twenties and The Sea Wolf among them, Johnny O’Clock represented Robert Rossen’s directorial debut. He’d only helm 10 films between 1947 and 1961 but the list is most impressive. On it you’ll find, Body and Soul (1947), All The King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961).
My favorite exchange in the film comes when Bannon verbally spars with Powell.
Bannon, “You get in my way and I’ll kill you.”
Powell, “You took the words right out of my mouth.”
Guns, tough guys, a detective, cigarettes, dames, rain, shadows in black and white, violence and murder add up to a solid Noir entry if you’re in the mood. It’s out on DVD thanks to one of the TCM Vault Collections aimed at Noir fans.