Johnny O’Clock (1947): Rossen’s Crime Noir, Starring Dick Powell and Evelyn Keyes

From Our Vaults:

Robert Rossen made his directing debut with Johnny O’Clock, a crime noir film, starring Dick Powell, Evelyn Keyes, and Lee J. Cobb.

While this film was mediocre (and a rather unimpressive debut), in two years, Rossen would win the Best Director and the Best Picture Oscars for hi superb political expose, All the King’s Men.

Johnny O’Clock (Dick Powell) is a junior partner in a posh casino with Guido Marchettis (Thomas Gomez).

Complicating working relationship is Guido’s wife Nelle (Ellen Drew), who’s still in love with former boyfriend Johnny. She gives Johnny an expensive custom pocket watch, twin of birthday present she gave her husband, except Johnny’s has a romantic inscription engraved.

Johnny gives the watch, along with rejection note, to Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch), a hat-check girl at the casino, to return to Nelle. Harriet, however, apparently commits suicide using gas.

Her sister Nancy (Evelyn Keyes), who shows up to find out what happened, becomes attracted to Johnny. They eventually learn from Police Inspector Koch (Lee J. Cobb) that Harriet was killed by poison.

Harriet was dating Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon), a crooked cop trying to persuade Guido to let him take Johnny’s place.

When Blayden also turns up dead, Koch suspects that either Johnny or Marchettis is responsible.

Though Johnny tries to resist, he falls for Nancy. When Koch shows both Johnny and Marchettis Johnny’s watch and note, Johnny tells Nancy their relationship is through and takes her to the airport.

While driving away, however, he narrowly survives a drive-by shooting. Nancy, realizing he was only trying to protect her, refuses to leave him.

Johnny decides to flee to South America with Nancy, after cashing in his share of the casino. Marchettis pulls out a gun when Johnny’s back is turned. They shoot it out; Marchettis is killed and Johnny wounded.

Nelle offers to testify it was an act of self-defense, but only if he will come back to her. He refuses, and she tells Koch it was cold-blooded murder.

Johnny’s first instinct is to run away, but Nancy convinces him to give himself up.

The film was based on an original story by Milton Holmes. Rights were bought by Columbia, which planned the project for Charles Vidor, but he refused.

Evelyn Keyes was given the female lead. Lee J. Cobb was borrowed from 20th Century Fox to play a support role. Thomas Gomez was borrowed from Universal.

Dick Powell acted on radio with Jeff Chandler and was impressed by the young actor. Chandler later recalled, “It was Dick who took me to Columbia and told everybody who would listen, ‘This kid ought to be in pictures.’ One executive finally kinda gave him a look that said: ‘All right you — —, we’ll put him in yours.’ And that’s how I came to play a gambler in a card playing sequence.”

Despite good performances and solid camerawork from Burnett Guffey, Rossen’s first film as a director is a disappointingly flat thriller, mechanically constructed.

Dick Powell as Johnny O’Clock
Evelyn Keyes as Nancy Hobson
Lee J. Cobb as Inspector Koch
Ellen Drew as Nelle Marchettis
Nina Foch as Harriet Hobson
Thomas Gomez as Guido Marchettis (as ‘S. Thomas Gomez’)
John Kellogg as Charlie
Jim Bannon as Chuck Blayden
Mabel Paige as Slatternly Woman Tenant
Phil Brown as Phil, Hotel Clerk
Jeff Chandler as Turk


TCM showed the movie on November 20, 2021.