Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Big Clock

With the prevalence of television, movies, video games and trolling the interweb, it is easier than ever for me to waste my free time away with little or nothing to show for it.  As such, I have made it a habit to read a little bit every day, oftentimes from my excellent collection of noir.  I have read The Big Clock a few times, and it is one of the more interesting twists on the cat-and-mouse game in the genre.  Naturally, the suspense of the chase and its unique twist makes this an obvious choice for a film adaptation.
Ray Milland, keeping his eyes open for cats and mice

The Big Clock is the story of George Stroud (Ray Milland), the editor-in-chief of Crimeways magazine, which is just a small part of Earl Janoth's (Charles Laughton) publishing empire.  Janoth is a demanding boss, seemingly devoid of human emotion, save his fondness for words that end in "-ways;" his other magazine all have that in their title to brand them, like Fashionways, Futureways, and probably Sideways.  Cue rimshot. 
Earl Janoth: charming
Thanks to the conflicts between his home life (where he spends too little time) and his professional life (where he gets fired for insisting on taking the vacation he has postponed for four years), George finds himself in the doghouse with his wife, Georgette (Maureen O'Sullivan) and fired by Janoth.  What's a newsman to do?  If you answered "drink to oblivion with the wrong crowd," you're only partly right.  The "crowd" George finds himself getting blotto with is actually Janoth's mistress, Pauline (Rita Johnson), who is interested in blackmailing Janoth.  After a crazy night on the town where nothing naughty happens, George bids Pauline goodnight, right as Janoth is coming to visit.  George recognizes Janoth, but Janoth cannot identify George thanks to the lighting in the apartment complex.  In a fit of jealous rage, Janoth murders Pauline.  But a man of his stature need not turn himself in to the authorities over the death of such a trivial person, right?  Janoth re-hires George to head a Crimeways investigation into Pauline's murder, with explicit instructions to find the mysterious man Pauline was seen around town with that night; this needs to be a Janoth Publishing exclusive, so the police cannot be involved either.  Obviously, George is in a tough spot.  He has been hired to track himself down, doubtlessly to have a murder he didn't commit pinned on him.  Obviously, George has to figure out who did the killing and prove it, but without sacrificing himself before a powerful and apparently lawless man.  The chase is on!
News magazines: as glamorous as you imagined

The acting in The Big Clock is solid, but a little dated.  While I liked Ray Milland's character at the start of the film --- it's hard to dislike charming, intelligent and quip-friendly characters --- I didn't particularly care for his portrayal of a man on the run.  He went from fairly suave to obviously shifty-eyed in a matter of minutes.  Granted, I would feel off if I realized I was being hunted by a murderer, but Milland's anxiety was conveyed in a heavy-handed manner.  The most frequent example of this is whenever someone around George makes an observation about their unidentified suspect that accurately depicts George or his actions on the night before, Milland's eyes dart from side to side, a la Pong. 
Does this look like a guilty man?
Charles Laughton was more enjoyable as the detestable Janoth.  Paunchy, ugly men do not necessarily convey strength or power on the big screen by default, but Laughton was quite impressive and believable in his role.  I thought Marueen O'Sullivan was fine as George's wife, although I find it hard to believe that any two people sharing the same basic name would ever agree to kiss each other, much less marry.  Sometimes, in films like this, the estranged wife seems ridiculously ignorant of context, but I liked that her Georgette was portrayed as an intelligent and strong woman.  You should also recognize Harry Morgan (of M.A.S.H. and Dragnet fame) as Janoth's merciless thug.  You might snicker at that, too.  Elsa Lanchester added some comic relief as a professional painter, although I would argue that the last thing this film needed was comic relief. 
"It's my artistic interpretation of your colon health"

I wasn't terribly impressed with John Farrow's direction, but he had some inspired moments.   I especially liked the first scene with Janoth, as the camera subtly moved around the room, like the eyes of an anxious Janoth underling.  Unfortunately, there were many more choices I was less impressed with.  The Big Clock is another classic film noir that is told in an extended flashback; I understand the desire to get the audience immediately interested in what happens with the plot, but I hate hate hate the presumption that quality storytelling isn't enough to compel an audience to sit tight and see what unfolds.  I can understand the extended flashback if it gives a character the excuse to narrate (as in Double Indemnity), but the opportunity is wasted in The Big Clock.  With George scheming to save his own neck, this could have been a great opportunity for clever narration --- I would have loved to hear his reasons for assigning certain people to certain tasks in the Janoth manhunt --- but instead, we are stuck with some lackluster bookend narration.  I also felt that the additional humor was uneven and distracting from any suspense the main plot was trying to build.  I also didn't care for the ending, but it was in the novel that way; I would have preferred some deviation from the source text, but I've seen stupider mindless devotion to the source.
I wonder who is supposed to be evil?

While not the strongest film noir entry I have reviewed to date, the acting talents of Ray Milland and Charles Laughton are more than enough to make this watchable.  Sadly, there are too many missed opportunities to make The Big Clock film as good as the book.

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