Noir Beat: Johnny O’Clock and more

 Johnny O'Clock (1947)

Lately I have been watching some old b’s that echo film critic Pauline Kael’s view that a “movie doesn’t have to be great… you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line”.

Robert Rossen’s first directing effort Johnny O’Clock (1947) – and he wrote the script – is a strange bird. The movie has a weird disconnected ambience that harkens back to Von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941). It is almost surreal in its distance from what happens inside the frame. Dick Powell leads as the junior partner in a gambling joint, reprising the hard-boiled persona he adopted in Cornered (1945) and Murder, My Sweet (1944). Add a murder, a conniving business partner, two dames, a crooked cop, and an honest cop, and you have a fairly solid mystery thriller that keeps you guessing. Rossen’s camera is nervous as you would expect in a novice effort, and keeps making jumpy moves and self-conscious pans, but he keeps the scenario taught. The dialog is both street-wise and poetic, and delivered with Powell’s signature take-it-or-leave-it. But the “joy” as Kael put it is in the performances, which are full-on engaging. Powell’s partner in racket is a paranoid Thomas Gomez, whose wife has the hots for Powell, and who is not interested. The wife is brassy and beautifully played by Ellen Drew. We have a delightfully world-weary wise-cracking cigar-chewing Lee J. Cobb as a cop. The icing on the cake is the wonderful Evelyn Keyes as the love interest. She is totally beguiling, as only she knows how.

Quicksand (1950)

Mickey Rooney’s first noir entry Quicksand (1950) is an ok programmer that moves quickly but predictably to a hackneyed redemption ending. Rooney is a mechanic who gets mixed up with a dangerous floozy and as the title implies gets ever deeper into a spiralling mess after “borrowing” 20 bucks from his boss’s cash register. Rooney does fairly well but his voiceovers have an unfortunate ‘duh’ quality that border on the risible. The hidden treasures here are Peter Lorre’s cameo as a shady penny arcade operator and Jeanne Cagney as the floozy. The veteran and the bit-player deliver in equal measure.

Time Table (1956)

In Time Table (1956) Mark Stevens, who was so good in The Dark Corner (1956), is an insurance dick assigned to investigate a train heist. There are sufficient twists and turns to keep you interested, and one twist totally out of left field just about knocks your socks off. Stevens also helmed in this his second director job after Cry Vengeance (1954). While the picture never goes beyond its b agenda, Stevens and his veteran DP Charles Van Enger deliver at the end with a gripping shadowy South of the border shoot-out on the streets of Tijuana.