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At the centre of Rossen's film noir debut feature is Dick Powell's hard bitten Johnny, a casino manager and junior partner in a gambling club who has a selfish streak a mile wide. O'Clock gets up late, always looks after number one, and has enjoyed a twenty year partnership with club owner Pete Marchettis. To him - as he confesses to Nancy - a new roulette wheel is just as attractive as a woman. But there are cracks in his icy façade. He's had an affair with Marchetti's wife and she still wants him back. O'Clock's weakness (if one can see it like that) is the underlying humanity in his makeup, an eventual need for affection in the arms of a woman. Although resolutely cold to Mrs Marchetti, the death of the Hobbs sister and his growing distaste for the cop Blaydon (elegantly conveyed in the discarded-sandwich scene they share close to the start of the film) gradually reveal his emotional feet of clay. In fact Blaydon reflects many of the unpleasant aspects of O'Clock's character, ones which could so easily come to dominate his personality: total greed and emotional coldness. The resolute Inspector Koch (Lee J. Cobb in an excellent cigar-chomping heavy performance) is hounding them both and, despite his casual coolness, we feel that inside O'Clock is secretly nettled by a feeling of oncoming nemesis.
In fact, for most of the film, O'Clock has done nothing overtly wrong. He is merely guilty by association with the worst elements, and by his disdain for any emotional display or real involvement with others. Marked, then dogged by fate, caught in a web outside of his control (Blaydon's emotional cruelty, the resultant suicide, then murder, the mix up with the watch), O'Clock's life increasingly assumes a powerlessness typical of film noir.
This is a film with many of the genre archetypes intact: hard bitten dialogue, a drunken moll, noir 'fetish' items for the camera's gaze (guns, watches/clocks, cigarette cases etc) and a pervading sense of cynicism and corruption. O'Clock's close relationship with his 'flatmate' Charlie (he wakes him up at the beginning of the film for instance) adds a suspicion of homo-eroticism to the plot. In fact one suspects that jealousy perhaps is what really lies at the back of Charlie's eventual betrayal.
What makes this film somewhat different from others of its type is the cool character of O'Clock: unusually for a noir hero, for a long time he is distanced from the growing predicament. Only as the film proceeds, starting with his angst over the suicide, does a real feeling of paranoia and fate set in.
Rossen's composition within the frame is effective throughout the film and makes for some memorable set ups, while his handling of a complicated plot assured, belying the fact that it is a first film. Although his work in noir would reach its height in the superb 'Body and Soul' (also with Thomas Gomez), never the less Johnny O'Clock is an excellent example of the genre and well worth viewing. Watch out for a young Jeff Chandler in a minor role.
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