Sunday, September 08, 2019

The Big Clock (1948, John Farrow)

 Not all film noir takes place in a seedy underworld; sometimes noir arrives on the commuter train wearing a custom-made suit. So it goes with John Farrow’s The Big Clock (1948), which sets its dark doings and flashback narrative in a top-flight New York corporation that occupies a swank (if somberly lit) Midtown office tower.

The hero (or, if you prefer, since this is film noir, the primary sap) is family man George Stroud (Ray Milland), an executive in the massive publishing empire of Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton). One night Stroud gets himself into a pickle by getting drunk with Pauline York, played by Rita Johnson as a trampy soul with a chic exterior. Unfortunately for Stroud, Pauline is also Janoth’s mistress, and Stroud must exit her couch the next morning when their boss drops by unexpectedly.

After Stroud exits, mistress and magnate fight, and fifty years before anyone ever saw a Viagra ad, Pauline’s tirade shows off some choice euphemisms for “impotent”: “You think you could make any woman happy?...You flabby, flabby...” And that last word is one of the last Pauline utters, as Janoth bludgeons her to death with a sundial.

Well, what’s a self-respecting titan to do in such a situation, except use every last bit of his power to pin the blame on someone else? And the someone else happens to be Stroud. The main twist in Jonathan Latimer’s twisty script (based on a novel by Kenneth Fearing) is that Janoth doesn’t know who he’s after, and Stroud must extricate himself without Janoth’s finding out.

The cast includes Farrow’s real-life wife, Maureen O’Sullivan, as Milland’s wife, and Mrs. Stroud is a touch on the petulant side. When she whines out a line like “I could write an article — how to look at a wall in six easy lessons,” it seems the silver lining to being framed for murder must be that at least it gets Stroud out of the house. Milland, on the other hand, had a dry, understated delivery that works wonders with a putdown like “He doesn't want to let his left hand know whose pocket the right one is picking.” That talent keeps his rather self-centered character in the audience’s good graces.

The film also finds George Macready playing Steve Hagen, the high-ranking bag-man who covers up for Janoth. Macready shows off his supreme ability to play an aristocratic criminal to the ice-cold hilt. He’s the perfect foil for Laughton, and as with Macready and Glenn Ford in Gilda, there is a suggestion of something more than friendship and professional interest between Janoth and Hagen.

That connection was explicit in Fearing's novel, but Laughton and Macready get the point across, too. "Steve, I've just killed someone," Laughton tells Macready, as though announcing he will bid four clubs. "Well, she's been asking for it for a long time," says Macready, by way of consolation.

There’s one more off-screen spouse on screen: Laughton's real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester, shows up to get most of the laughs, as a daffy artist whose painting has been sold to Stroud. She could doom Stroud merely by drawing his face — but doesn't, saying, "I've few enough collectors without sending one to jail."

Despite all this top-drawer company, it is Laughton who rules over The Big Clock. In Hollywood movies, most tyrannical managers are openly and loudly abusive. Laughton as Janoth keeps his voice low, forcing subordinates to lean close, which they wouldn't do otherwise. Getting close would mean they have to look at Janoth’s weedy little moustache and the way he strokes it with one finger, in a gesture as suggestive as it is repulsive. He won't make eye contact, which refusal emphasizes his employees' wormlike status. And Laughton speaks every word in an affected, maddeningly casual drawl, underlining that he doesn't give a hoot if he just screwed up someone's life.

The movie derives its title and central metaphor from the enormous, state-of-the-art clock in Janoth's building. The publisher is obsessed with time and punctuality, heedless of the hours he demands from others, but convinced every minute of an employee's tardiness is a form of theft. There's no mystery as to how he rose so high: He hires talented people and sucks the life out of them. No detail is too petty, no penny-pinching too undignified. At one point he docks an employee’s pay for leaving a light burning in a closet. Laughton does this in the same tone one might use for ordering a lunch delivery.

John Farrow’s movies combine the serviceable with bursts of the spectacular, and there are times when it’s the actors and Latimer’s darkly funny script that keep things humming. But Farrow’s direction reaches its apex with a shot that slides down from the ceiling, like Zeus descending, to find Laughton emerging from his elevator, and to track the actor circling a table during an executive meeting, shooting down his underlings’ idea one by one without ever glancing their way. But Laughton won’t even let the camera upstage him, as he hands a glass of water back to a secretary without looking to make sure she’s actually standing behind him.

If Laughton's performance has a flaw, it's that he is so consistently maddening that he risks the audience’s irritation becoming genuine; the Siren found herself thinking, "Speak up, for goodness sake, and will you stop it with the blasted moustache already!" In all the Siren’s years of watching movies, few characters got under her skin as much as Janoth did. Laughton creates a sort of Ur-Boss, bursting with every nasty managerial trait you ever noticed — and some you hadn't, until Laughton magnified them for you.

(This is the full-length version of the Siren's essay published years ago
at a now-defunct online magazine.)