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Actor Dick Powell's change-of-image from light song and dance man to hard-boiled leading player began with two films directed by Edward Dmytryk, Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Cornered (1945), and continued with the title role in Johnny O'Clock (1947), a noirish crime melodrama by first-time director Robert Rossen. By 1947 Rossen was a highly regarded screenwriter, having recently penned the script of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) for producer Hal Wallis, and an adaptation of the novel A Walk in the Sun (1945) for producer/ director Lewis Milestone and 20th Century Fox. At Columbia Pictures, studio chief Harry Cohn gave Rossen the chance to direct his own screenplay for Johnny O'Clock after veteran director Charles Vidor backed out of the assignment.
Rossen deftly handles the complex plot of Johnny O'Clock, from a story by Milton Holmes. Pete Marchettis (Thomas Gomez) is the senior partner and owner of a New York gambling house. The junior partner and overseer of the casino is the self-assured Johnny O'Clock (Dick Powell). A local cop on the take, Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon), cozies up to Pete and tries to convince him that he would be better at Johnny's job. Chuck's girlfriend Harriet (Nina Foch) is found dead in her gas-filled apartment and Police Inspector Koch (Lee J. Cobb) investigates. Harriet was murdered, and Koch and Harriet's sister Nancy (Evelyn Keyes) know it. Johnny O'Clock agrees to help Nancy prove that Harriet was murdered, but he must be careful to conceal his past relationship with Pete's wife Nellie (Ellen Drew). Inspector Koch suspects that Johnny and Pete are involved in the murder, and proceeds to make life difficult for both of them, especially after Chuck is found dead in the river.
Johnny O'Clock features many strong elements of Film Noir, such as the brooding black-and-white photography by Burnett Guffey. (Guffey went on to photograph Rossen's All the King's Men , as well as such important 1950s Noir dramas as Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place , Dmytryk's The Sniper , and Fritz Lang's Human Desire ). Certainly Johnny O'Clock also features the sort of seedy urban settings and labyrinthine plotting that Post-War Noir favored, but critic Carl Macek argues (in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style) that the movie does not quite qualify for the term: "...the film is emotionally detached and the character portrayed by Powell was not obviously vulnerable. It is through a sense of the protagonist's weaknesses that most films of this nature approach the noir classification. But Johnny O'Clock is not privy to this important attitude, although the motivations are correct and the settings are particularly corrupt and ambiguous. The elements lacking are a sense of fear and powerlessness."
In her book Scarlett O'Hara's Younger Sister: My Lively Life In and Out of Hollywood, co-star Evelyn Keyes wrote about her experiences on the film: "...Rossen was rewriting as we went along, handing out new pages seconds before we did almost every scene." Regarding a scene she had with supporting actor Lee J. Cobb, Keyes said that "although he was quite helpful and worked hard with me on it, he then tried to steal it from me by chewing on a cigar and noisily spitting out pieces of it over my lines."
Following production of Johnny O'Clock, but before its release, producers at the independent company Enterprise Pictures were considering hiring Rossen to direct a script by Abraham Polonsky set in the world of boxing. They asked Harry Cohn at Columbia if they could screen Johnny O'Clock to decide, but the rambunctious Cohn refused, and is quoted as saying "I never saw any film by Rossen! I took a chance on him! Why shouldn't you?" Robert Rossen would direct only nine more films following Johnny O'Clock, but that short list includes a high proportion of classics, including that boxing picture - Body and Soul (1947) - as well as multiple award-winners All the King's Men (1949), and The Hustler (1961).
Producer: Edward G. Nealis
Director: Robert Rossen
Screenplay: Robert Rossen, story by Milton Holmes
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Film Editing: Al Clark, Warren Low
Music: George Duning
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson, Cary Odell
Set Decoration: James Crowe
Costume Design: Jean Louis
Cast: Dick Powell (Johnny O'Clock), Evelyn Keyes (Nancy Hobson), Lee J. Cobb (Inspector Koch), Ellen Drew (Nelle Marchettis), Nina Foch (Harriet Hobson), Thomas Gomez (Pete Marchettis).
By John M. Miller