Sunday, May 20, 2007

Review of The Big Clock

I put off “The Big Clock” (1948) a long time because the title was so lame sounding. How could a great noir thriller have a name so droll? But I was completely in the wrong and “The Big Clock” deserves much better recognition and regard. The film is full of the type of outrageous coincidences that make it a joy for fans of strange irony, but manages to unfold in such a natural and nail-biting fashion as to be realistic and riveting. The result walks on the border between dark film noir and zany screwball comedy, allowing the audience to decide rather to react primarily to the drama or the comedy.

George Straud (Ray Milland) works at CrimeWays, one of several news/entertainment magazine divisions (like AirWays, FashionWays, NewsWays, etc.) in Earl Janoth’s media empire. George has just cracked a major case ahead of the police, ensuring an exclusive story and a boost to ratings. As a reward for the completed task, he intends to take a few weeks off from work. Janoth (Charles Laughton in a standout performance) is harsh and dismissive on his staff of yes-men, but treasures the results-driven George and plans to prevent his long-overdue vacation.

Straud’s wife, Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan), is determined to get the honeymoon that she’s been denied for seven years. She pressures George so hard that he lets himself get fired rather than obey Janoth’s command to stay. However, he misses his train anyway because he gets drunk in a bar with Janoth’s mistress, Pauline York, who promises to help him get revenge on his former boss. They party late into the evening, buy a painting and go to her apartment, but he leaves just before Janoth arrives.

Janoth catches a brief glimpse of the departing rival as they cross in the hallway. He accuses Pauline of infidelity, quizzes her about the evening (she gives a false name for the man she was with) and kills her in his anger. Janoth gets his right-hand man, Steve Hagan (George Macready) to help him cover up the crime and they decide to launch a manhunt for an invented criminal fitting the description of the man Janoth saw in the hallway (he doesn’t know it was George). The plan is to have the unwitting fall-guy shot while “resisting arrest” thus pinning the murder on a dead man. Janoth calls up George to head the case, and he immediately recognizes himself as the suspect described. A game of cat-and-mouse begins where George must lead the investigation ever closer to catching himself while he tries to find out the truth and redirect the evidence.

This long and twisted setup covers less than the first third of the film, and audience members are in for a packed 95 minutes as the story builds up to an almost unbearable level of tension. The story juggles lots of elements without messing up continuity and keeps the vying motives and counter-schemes easy to understand despite further complications.

Ray Milland does a fine job in the lead, keeping his voice-over to a thankful minimum. The scenes where he prowls several establishments while drunk are his worst (one day I’ll have a shameless rant on drunks in old movies), but everything else from the office politics to the married romance and from the investigative interviews to the suspenseful peaks are handled ably.

Laughton steels the show as the villain, a man obsessed with time and who calculates his activities down to the exact minute. He’s a cunning old coot, with the implication that he will crush you like a bug oozing out from under every curt retort in his deadpan Southern drawl.

The supporting cast also has some amusing highlights, including a prim, bookish crime researcher assigned by Straud to do undercover work at a bar (an establishment that doubles inexplicably as an antique shop that has “everything you can name.”). The out-of-place nerd is intentionally setup to fail by Straud (who wants to foil the case he is leading) and the poor man is easily identified as a cop by the locals and humorously fooled. Elsa Lanchester, as an eccentric painter, also has minor comedic role.

One of the best moves in bringing “The Big Clock” to life (it was originally a book), is meticulously creating the skyscraper set of Janoth’s media empire. The building really seems alive with the bustle of reporters, photographers and staff members and the set designs are great. The highlight is the “big clock” of the title, an extremely expensive multistory electronic clock that synchronizes all the timepieces in the building and ticks off the seconds for every time zone in the world. It serves as a Hitchcockian action set piece and as a foreboding massive incarnation of the film’s temporality theme.

Time dominates the film at large, with clocks ever present, deadlines always looming and everything needing immediate attention. Straud and Janoth deal with time and efficiency as guiding principles of their lives, and one can see Straud eventually becoming the clockwork monster that is Janoth should he continue to live his life at such a breakneck rate (leaving his family behind). In a flash of morbid insight, director John Farrow even managed to make the primary murder weapon be a timepiece. Want to know how? Watch the movie or scroll to the end of this post and flip your monitor upside down.

Farrow’s camerawork captures the sets at their best. His shot length is on the high side, but with plenty of movement. One shot near the beginning has the camera joining a crowd in the elevator and stopping at several busy floors with varying art deco sets. Is it a real elevator traveling upwards or is a crew rapidly sliding backgrounds on and off of the stage while the elevator is shut and stationary? I think the latter might actually be true. The long, fluid shots help stretch out the tension and prevent the possibility of release from the many claustrophobic situations.

A definite must-see for fans of classic noir. The film is easily accessible and shines in plot over all else, though with strong characters and good sets. The ending fits right into place although the cheap last line is a bit contrived.

Walrus Rating: 9

How can a clock be used as a murder weapon?


Molly said...

I saw references to this film all over the place when I was doing my reading on noir, but I never got around to seeing it. Now I think I just may have to.

Mad Dog said...

If you liked the premise of this, you absolutely MUST check out Death Note in some form. It's an extremely interesting game of logic and cat-and-mouse stuff.

FilmWalrus said...

I am excited about Death Note. Everyone into anime at WashU was talking about it and when you pitched it to me it sounded very compelling.

Mad Dog said...

If you want an ultra-condensed version of the first half of the first arc of it, there's a fansub of the live-action movie lurking about the Internets. My only beef with it is that it doesn't really come off as a theatrical production. Sort of more of a TV movie. For some reason a lot of Japanese movies come off that way.