Tuesday, September 17, 2019
Noir Watch: The Big Clock
Format: Noir Alley on TCM on DVR
I... I may now be a fan of Ray Milland. I used to not think of him one way or another, but after The Long Weekend and a re-watch of The Big Clock (1948), and thinking back on some of this other films like Dial M for Murder, Alias Nick Beal... he's not quite Cary Grant or James Stewart to me yet, but I may actually seek out more of his work just to see what he does.
I read the novel of The Big Clock maybe two decades ago, and my memory of the book is that it was, as the kids say, a real page turner. One of those books you keep picking up to see where it's headed. Shortly after, I found the movie and give it a viewing, and while they're substantially different, also a good watch. A few years ago, I watched it again and liked it significantly more than even the first time - and on this viewing, I am pretty sure I was correct to like it all the more.
Ray Milland plays the editor of a true-crime weekly magazine, part of the Janoth publishing empire, which appends "ways" to the noun the magazine covers. "Travelways", "Artways", and, in Milland's case, "Crimeways". He's good at his job, excellent even, but at a cost. He's set to take a vacation to make up for a honeymoon he's never had as he keeps up with the breakneck pace of Janoth publishing, ruled with an iron fist by the time-obsessed Earl Janoth, played with a detached, sociopathic chill by the always terrific Charles Laughton.
The plot has the intricacy of a well-honed timepiece, leading to Janoth unknowingly framing Milland for murder, even as he sets Milland to catch the killer. It is... nuts. And while thoroughly noir - Milland should not have followed Pauline to find out what dirt she had on Janoth, leaving his family hanging one more time - and most absolutely a thriller, it's also giddy fun in many places with great set design, camera work/ lighting, and some impeccable performances.
Milland could have been, say, Jimmy Stewart here, has this movie come after 1950, I think. He's a workaholic everyman whose essentially a decent guy, but he really is addicted to the job and neglectful of home and hearth (his wife is played by Maureen O'Sullivan, who actually does get in some good lines here and there). And Laughton seems to relish the almost reptilian loathsomeness of his character.
Despite the fact I am 100% aware of their marriage, somehow I never considered that Laughton may have brought Elsa Lancester to the film as a bohemian artist with a passel of kids. She more than earns the part - and, y'all, she is absolutely a scene-stealing delight.
We also get Harry Morgan as a silent thug, Rita Johnson as a girl shaking down Janoth, and Charles Macready as Laughton's right hand man.
For another favorite here at the Signal Watch, Noel Neill, original formula Lois Lane, plays an elevator girl putting up with some standard-issue mid-20th century unwanted advances from her passengers. Still, always great to see Neill show up.
Late Edit: I was reminded by Nate on twitter of the opening shot - a remarkable bit of work - moving from the exterior of a skyscraper (model) and into the hallways of Janoth. It's a fascinating tracking shot, and indicative of the direction and DP work in the movie, propelling the story.
The pacing of the film moves quickly, lean and efficient, even as it works in meaningful character moments for Milland and Laughton. And while much of the action takes place within the offices of Janoth Publishing, it whips from upscale to lowbrow New York, stopping off briefly in the Village and popping over to West Virginia for a scene or two. The viewer does have the advantage of knowing much that our characters do not, but it works shockingly well as they play at odds with each other.