Tuesday, May 28, 2019


Paramount Pictures, 95m 24s

I never have bought into the idea that film noir is a style rather than a genre. Genre is formula, genre is repetition. The classic noir films were constructed on the firm foundation of genre filmmaking, with the same themes and motifs popping up time and again. That is not to suggest the film noir does not have a distinctive visual style, which it certainly did, particularly in the 1940s. But the persistently dark look of the noir film is more than matched by its dark themes and overarching sense of fatalism. The remarkably indifferent noir universe commonly punishes flawed characters who make contemptible decisions, but the noir protagonist need not be an individual of questionable merit. The film noir sometimes delivers a heavy boot to the face of a basically good man.

After an establishing shot of the nocturnal city skyline, THE BIG CLOCK falls into the shadows of DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), DETOUR (1945) and THE KILLERS (1946) by beginning at the end. Respectable-looking George Stroud (Ray Milland) somehow has gotten into horrible trouble and is running for his life. His narration communicates the severity of the situation. "How'd I get into this rat race, anyway? I'm no criminal—what happened, when did it all start?" he questions. The explanation for Stroud's predicament unspools via tried-and-true film noir plot mechanics:  the narrative rewinds from Friday, April 25th, 11:23 PM to Thursday, April 24th, 10:48 AM, when the story begins properly. Stroud is the editor of Crimeways, a periodical devoted to investigative journalism. Dedication to that publication has molded him into a master tracker of wanted men who have gone into hiding. In a sign that the private sector has gotten ahead of the public one, Crimeways has a reputation for finding criminals before the police. Ironically, the skill set Stroud has developed, along with the crack team he has assembled, will threaten his existence as a free man.

A related theme that recurs with regularity in the noir genre is the conflict between family needs and a man's professional sense of purpose. Stroud's wife (Maureen O'Sullivan, wife of the film's director John Farrow) has waited five years for a proper honeymoon, constantly upended by his allegiance to Crimeways. Though a trip to West Virginia has been arranged, George Jr. (B.G. Norman) doubts his father will attend the family trip based on nagging historical precedent. Stroud's incredibly demanding boss Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) insists on an intense rivalry between professional and private lives when he forces Stroud to choose between his long overdue family vacation and Stroud's accomplished career, as if the two may not coexist. In fact, Janoth promises Stroud will find himself blacklisted and essentially unemployable as a journalist should he put his family requirements front and center. As jagged a pill as that may be for Stroud to ingest, his more pressing problem arrives in the alluring form of Pauline York (Rita Johnson), a temptress brought to him by fate. She shares his disdain for Janoth, and the two build an alliance that leads to a therapeutic pub crawl. Whether the two hook up is left to conjecture (though it is not ambiguous in the novel). Even if their relationship on film is platonic, the noir universe frowns on the man who spends any time with a woman he has not given his surname. The presence of York, this noir's sort-of femme fatale, is linked to severe hardships that dog both major male characters.

Another well-documented film noir tradition is the impersonal urban environment as a critical component of the drama. In this case, the narrative primarily plays out in New York City. Within its vast urban network resides the interminable purgatory of the modern workplace, where Stroud's duties forever conflict with the needs of his family. It is implied strongly THE BIG CLOCK could play out only in a very large city, where a media conglomerate like the one depicted could thrive. With Crimeways, Airways, Styleways, Artways, Newsways, Sportways and Futureways, Janoth Publications appears to have commercialized every possible area of human interest. The elevator scene in the first act neatly captures the hustle and bustle of big city business, as well as a certain decadence of the urban lifestyle. A confident young man informs the female elevator attendant there exists elevators in his building too, where he would be happy to give her "...a free ride." The microcosmic elevator setting will factor into the narrative's final act, when we witness the deserved fall of a man who claimed too much authority over others in an urban landscape that commands more power than any one person inside of it.

With its narrative intensely focused on the hands of time, the film is entitled THE BIG CLOCK for good reason. In the early going, we learn Stroud's time is running out rapidly in a massive structure that features an enormous clock system, the pride and joy of Janoth and symbol of a mechanized international business community (the clock displays real time throughout the world and even attracts sightseers). The vast interior of the immense clock houses the film's key environment where Stroud struggles to preserve his professional and personal lives, which constantly are depicted as at war with one another. The clock even contains a spiral staircase, a common noir accessory that often figures in a protagonist's rise or fall. Over drinks, he has a good rant about the world's overabundance of time, later he goes on the prowl for a green clock, then he purchases a painting of a pair of human hands (that parallel any ordinary clock's pair of hands). In the painting, the hands exchange money, which implies the interlocking of time and money is essential to business. The relentless time element adds to this film noir's overwhelming sense of paranoia. Janoth is even aware of the average amount of seconds that account for a human lifetime, yet unaware of how little remaining time he has.

Janoth Publications is presided over by Earl Janoth, the embodiment of insufferable ruling-class power. Though mainly concerned with the anticipation of trends that may impact circulation, Janoth shows a domineering appreciation for petty details as well. A man of next to no patience, Janoth allows his representatives a mere one minute each to describe potential initiatives to boost readership. Later in an absurd demonstration of micromanagement lunacy, he orders a man's pay docked for careless failure to turn off a broom closet light bulb! In another such tyrannical moment, he fires a man who objects to printing in red ink. Obviously Janoth has become accustomed to a position of considerable control. "Everybody knows me," he comments, and behaves according to that principle. His building is wired to allow him to listen to interoffice communications. Phones are handed to him, and he hands them back when the call has concluded. The attention he requires and his somber demeanor invite comparisons with any number of James Bond movie villains. Janoth maintains a personal assistant named Bill Womack (Harry Morgan, billed here as Henry Morgan) who attends to his boss's various needs. Looming large, Janoth walks into a meeting and is handed a drink, then Womack promptly collects the drink when his boss has had his fill (interestingly, Womack alertly intercepts a female employee's attempt to take the glass). Later the perpetually silent Womack is shown massaging Janoth. Ostensibly the two share a relationship that goes beyond corporate office functions. Steve Hagen (George Macready) is in line to be the next Janoth, and those two also maintain a relationship brimming with homoerotic tensions.

Though his overbearing leadership style may be sufficient cause for comeuppance, it is Janoth's priapic inclinations that will bring about his undoing, while the modern technology of his building works against him. It is Janoth's ability to eavesdrop on his employees that triggers the connection between Pauline York and Stroud. The attractive York has done some modeling for one of Janoth's magazines. Somewhere along the way, Janoth took a special interest in her, and apparently he must pay for her companionship ("singing lessons"). In harmony with the sharp tongue that gets Katharine “Kitty” March (Joan Bennett) iced in SCARLET STREET (1945), York is silenced after she boldly challenges the patriarchal power—and sexuality—of Janoth. And in congruence with the film's oppressive time motif, York's days come to a halt when she is struck with a sundial.

Though the filmmakers show laudable awareness for women in the workforce (i.e. an elevator operator, a newsstand attendant, a stenographer, numerous secretaries), the main female characters on display fall in line with the established patriarchal order. A supporting female character of note is the artist Louise Patterson (Elsa Lanchester, the wife of Charles Laughton). With her peculiar laugh, strange manner and flock of children fathered by a multitude of men, the portrait of the liberal woman is painted as an oddity not to be taken seriously as a threat to patriarchy. Interestingly, even the liberal artist is corrupted by money and fame. It is Stroud's appreciation for her art that prevents her from clearly identifying him as the person of interest in the death of Pauline York. Patterson is set up as a potential foil for Stroud, though the problem she presents is averted without issue, as her painting of two hands seems to forecast.

THE BIG CLOCK boasts undeniably well-written dialog passages, especially those uttered by Charles Laughton. Kenneth Fearing wrote the 1946 source novel THE BIG CLOCK, which had appeared in an abridged version ("The Judas Picture") in THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE (October, 1946). His novel was adapted by screenwriter Jonathan Latimer, who would collaborate with director Farrow on 10 occasions. Three of those efforts were of the noir variety:  NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948), the excellent ALIAS NICK BEAL (1949, starring Ray Milland) and THE UNHOLY WIFE (1957). Director of photography John F. Seitz is a name that should ring familiar to alert followers of film noir. He handled the cinematography for THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), DOUBLE INDEMNITY, APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER (1950) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). He worked with Farrow five times, including the film noir NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES. Fearing's novel was adapted later as Police PYTHON 357 (1976), directed by Alain Corneau, and the following decade as NO WAY OUT (1987), directed by Roger Donaldson. The film noir SCANDAL SHEET (1952) would share consistent themes with THE BIG CLOCK and utilize a similar plot structure about a man forced to investigate a murder committed by his own employer.

The new Arrow Academy Blu-ray presentation of THE BIG CLOCK combines an HD transfer from original film elements with an uncompressed mono 1.0 PCM audio soundtrack. The new transfer preserves a healthy amount of grain, and is marred only by occasional scratches that are not overly bothersome. Framed at 1.345:1, the visual superiority of the Arrow Blu-ray compared to the Universal Pictures Home Entertainment DVD released in 2004 is illustrated by the screen captures that follow.

Arrow Academy Blu-ray

Universal DVD

The supplemental material features a new audio commentary track by film scholar Adrian Martin, who honors the directorial skill of John Farrow, a filmmaker known for his commitment to long takes and limited editing. Farrow created technically complex long shots that asked a lot of everyone involved. His minimal cuts convey enhanced meaning due in part to the extended nature of Farrow's extensive, carefully-planned shots. He was supremely skilled in the art of blocking (the arrangement of actors in a frame). Martin cites the pan from left to right in a bar scene as an example of the filmmaker's staging talent. Farrow demanded, and got, tremendous control of his productions. For THE BIG CLOCK, the director reached beyond the conventions of the crime film and incorporated elements of the screwball comedy, as well as other genres. Farrow's desire to blend genres, and thus become less easy to categorize, may explain why he was an underappreciated talent in his day. His capacity as a filmmaker remains undervalued today. In respect to Kenneth Fearing's source material, Martin quotes extended passages, and reviews some of the differences between the book and film, as well as thematic similarities. In both the book and its adaptation, everyone in the Stroud family has the first name George or some variant of George. That sameness emphasizes the average person's anonymity in his or her surroundings. According to Martin, the book goes even further than the film in regard to a corporation's emasculating control of a person's sexuality (this idea is best conveyed in the film by Stroud's inability to go on a honeymoon with his wife due to professional obligations).

Director John Farrow as master of blocking

Note the creeping presence of Bill (Harry Morgan), who lurks in each shot

Next up is the newly-filmed "Turning Back the Clock:  An Analysis of THE BIG CLOCK by Adrian Wootton" (23m 1s). The Chief Executive of Film London, Wootton covers a lot of the same ground staked out by Martin in the disc's commentary option, but with some added details and fresh insights. He notes screenwriter Jonathan Latimer was an accomplished crime novelist before relocating to Hollywood. A specialist in black humor, Latimer deserves credit for some of the wit that informs THE BIG CLOCK, especially during its second act. Producer Richard Maibaum would find great success as the screenwriter who adapted a large number of Ian Fleming 007 novels for the James Bond films. Wootton suspects Maibaum must have contributed on some level to the adaptation of the Fearing novel (an easy notion to appreciate when one considers some of the attributes of the Janoth character). In analytical mode, Wootton makes a great observation when he explains how the Janoth Publications building so importantly factors into THE BIG CLOCK's denouement. The place of employment becomes a prison for Stroud, who must subvert some of the skyscraper's many technical features if he is to find his way out.

Stroud (Ray Milland) shows willingness to separate himself from rotten peers

Another short film completed for this Blu-ray release is "A Difficult Actor:  Simon Callow on Charles Laughton" (17m 31s). The author of CHARLES LAUGHTON: A DIFFICULT ACTOR (1987), Callow sees THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939) as the crowning achievement of Laughton's early career. But by 1940, the actor seemed to lose his way, and perhaps viewed a film role as a paycheck more than a vehicle for artistic expression. As the title of Callow's book announces, Laughton was not the easiest of personalities to work with on the set. The tension between his character in THE BIG CLOCK and the man portrayed by Ray Milland likely was intensified by Milland's disgust that Laughton was a gay man. Though he never may have equaled his work as an actor in the role of Quasimodo, perhaps Laughton's greatest creative endeavor was as director of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), in my estimation the most hauntingly beautiful of all film noirs.

Also selectable is the Lux Radio Theatre radio dramatization of THE BIG CLOCK (59m 28s) that originally aired November 22, 1948. Ray Milland returns in the role of George Stroud, and Maureen O'Sullivan reprises her part as Stroud's neglected wife. Also on board is William Conrad as Janoth and William Johnstone as Hagen. Rounding out the bonus material is an original theatrical trailer (2m 21s) and an image gallery that has been divided between posters and press material (22 images) and production stills (a robust 109 images). The first pressing of the disc comes with a booklet essay by Christina Newland entitled "The Inner Workings of THE BIG CLOCK."

Classic film fans are advised to collect this Blu-ray disc while it is still on the market. Buy with complete confidence.

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