Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Big Clock (1948): Beware the Boss from HELL!

This post is part of the Sleuthathon,  hosted by Fritzi Kramer of Movies, Silently, from March 16th through March 17th, 2014.  Don your deerstalkers and have a great time!

Ironically, this is NOT a scene from The Lost Weekend!

Paramount’s 1948 thriller The Big Clock (TBC), based on poet/novelist Kenneth Fearing’s 1946 suspense novel, is not only a riveting hunted-man story with a fresh twist, but also a cautionary tale about what can happen if you let your job dictate your life:
  1. You’ll miss your own honeymoon, as well as every family vacation.
  2. Your marriage will suffer as your loving, understanding wife and child start to lose faith in you, along with your endless excuses, as your family life erodes.
  3. What am I saying?  Family life?  What family life?  Kiss it goodbye!
  4. Worst of all, when your obsessive, uber-controlling Boss From Hell kills someone in a fit of rage, you just might find yourself suspected of the crime!

Happily, in real life, TBC was a family affair, with director John Farrow (Five Came Back; His Kind of Woman) working with his real-life wife Maureen O’Sullivan (The Thin Man; Tarzan the Ape Man and its many sequels).  Last but far from least, Farrow cast the real-life husband-and-wife team of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, who also teamed up for Witness for the Prosecution, the latter earning Oscar nominations for both Charles and Elsa!  It’s even a reunion of sorts for star Ray Milland and composer Victor Young, who brought us the 1944 chiller The Uninvited, also starring Milland; who could forget the beautiful “Stella by Starlight,” as well as the delightful Road to Morocco? 

Poor George!  Maybe he can give his pursuers
the slip by pretending to be a light display! 
Stop the presses!
Overworked George
tells boss where to get off: Wheeling, West Virginia!
Noel Neill of The Adventures of Superman wishes
she could fly up, up, and away from fresh elevator operators!
Janoth Publication's big clock: The Hands of Fate!
"Georgette, it's not what you think! 
We're singing along with Pauline to "Do-Re-Me!"

Set in NYC (in 1948,that was present-day), TBC introduces us to George Stroud (Milland), letting us in on our anxious hero’s innermost thoughts as he hides in the giant clock in the Janoth Publications lobby at night.  George works for a huge Time-Warner/Henry Luce-style publishing company.  Director of Photography John F.Seitz (Double Indemnity; The Lost Weekend) works superbly in the film’s “docu-noir” style, with Edith Head’s costume design always a pleasure to see.  In flashbacks, we see that despite being married for seven years, George and his lovely and charming wife Georgette (O’Sullivan) have never had a honeymoon. We also learn  that the head man at Janoth Publications, Earl Janoth  (Laughton), hired George after he cracked a major murder case on his old newspaper in Wheeling, WV, and control-freak Janoth hasn’t given George a day off since, always snatching the Stroud family’s vacations from under them at the very last minute.  Adorably enough, George and Georgette have a young son, George Jr.  With the prestige and great salary Crimeways  affords him, George has always been reluctant to say “No” to Janoth, especially since Janoth does NOT take “No!” for an answer.  However, our hero is getting fed up, big-time!  So is Georgette, who sadly notes, “Sometimes I think you married that magazine instead of me…Little George hardly knows you...We’re like two strangers sharing an apartment.”  George and Georgette do their best to get as much family time as possible under the circumstances; perhaps that’s why the Stroud family’s names are all in various versions of the name “George”— papa George, mama Georgette, and son George Jr., sometimes even just calling each other “George” just for the heck of it.  At least it helps the family to keep track of each other!  You have to wonder how George and Georgette even got time to start a family!  

Louise Paterson tries to get her painting back, only to find she's in a bidding war!

Meet Pauline York, Janoth's mistress, an aspiring singer.
 Is she tired of singing for her supper, or does she have a veiled agenda?

Time really is money in Earl Janoth’s tight, suffocating world; for instance, this phone conversation between Janoth’s right-hand man Steve Hagen (George Macready from Gilda; Paths of Glory; My Name is Julia Ross): “On the fourth floor, in the broom closet, a bulb has been burning for several days.  Find the man responsible, dock his pay.”  I know we’re all trying to conserve energy (even back in the 1940s), but Janoth doesn’t have to be a tyrant about it!  In this sharp, twisty manhunt thriller, the renowned mystery writer Jonathan Latimer (The Glass Key; They Won’t Believe Me; TV’s Perry Mason) had ably adapted Fearing’s novel for the silver screen, with its blend of suspense, urban cynicism, and smart, snappy dialogue virtually intact.  I also find it intriguing that everything at Janoth Publications seems to be carved in stone, all cold and unyielding.   George does make big money at Janoth Publications,and it’s always cool to work in the big city, but I’ve also known people like George, who have grueling hours and no time to themselves, to the detriment of their family lives, with some co-workers even getting divorces from the pressure.

Check out the Crimeways Clue Chart!  That'll fix those no-goodniks!
I happen to love both the novel and the Paramount movie version of The Big Clock.  The book is more gritty and complex, but there’s also plenty of wry humor in it, too.  For example, in Kenneth Fearing’s novel, the Strouds actually have a little daughter, Georgia.  My husband Vinnie and I always get a kick out of the scenes with the Stroud family at breakfast; they always crack us up, because they remind us of our own goofy yet loving family life (not to put the whammy on it!  We’re great believers in not taking our happiness for granted).  For instance, here’s the Stroud family at breakfast in the novel, starting with papa George:

“Orange juice,” I said, drinking mine.  “These oranges just told me they came from Florida. 

My daughter gave me a glance of startled faith.  “I didn’t hear anything,” she said.”

“You didn’t?  One of them said they all came from a big ranch near Jacksonville….”

Here’s my own favorite Georgia Breakfast Bit Breakfast scene from the novel, where George regales us with The Adventures of Cynthia!  She’s…

“…about five, I think.  Or maybe it was seven… (she) also had a habit of kicking her feet against  the table whenever she ate.  Day after day, week in and week out, year after year, she kicked it and kicked it.  Then one fine day the table said, ‘I’m getting pretty tired of this, and with that it pulled back its leg, and whango, it booted Cynthia clear out of the window.  Was she surprised.”

This one was a complete success.  Georgia’s feet pounded in double-time, and she upset what was left of her milk…”

Some of the film’s grittier elements were softened a bit in the 1948 film version, probably for the Breen Office’s sake.  For instance, Janoth and Pauline’s fight in the film results from infidelity between Janoth and his mistress and possible aspiring blackmailer Pauline York (played by radio actor-turned-film star Rita Johnson from Here Comes Mr. Jordan; Sleep, My Love; Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor.  The film is as gripping as the book, sometimes more so.  In Fearing’s novel, our hero George Stroud talks about the “big clock” which inevitably runs our lives no matter what:

“Sometimes the hands of the clock actually raced, and at other times they hardly moved at all. But that made no difference to the big clock…all other watches have to be set by the big one, which is even more powerful than the calendar, and to which one automatically adjusts his entire life…” 

Keeping in mind that film is, of course, a visual medium, the “big clock” metaphor becomes a literal big clock — a huge clock/globe that can tell you the time anywhere in the world — and lots of little clocks sprinkled all over the headquarters of Janoth Publications, a Henry Luce/Time-Warner style magazine empire whose periodicals include ace editor George’s magazine Crimeways , as well as Airways; Newsways; Sportways; Styleways; etc. in the 1948 film version.  Janoth and Pauline’s fight in the film was the result of infidelity, but in the novel, their affair ends in murder when each accuses the other of being a closeted gay (keep in mind this was 1946).
"Georgette, darling, I was desolate!  Thank goodness
this was the film version so I couldn't get into worse trouble!"

George and Georgette better enjoy his firing while they can,
before George has to clear himself, by George!
Henchman Bill doesn't talk much, but I bet he's thinking:
"Life is too short to massage this jerk! I'm joining the Army"!

What's this? A sundial, used for a shady purpose!
It’s not all family fun and games when Earl Janoth’s mistress, Pauline York (Rita Johnson of The Major and the Minor; Sleep, My Love; Susan Slept Here) overhears George justifiably bellyaching to Janoth’s right hand man, Steve Hagen (George Macready from Gilda; Paths of Glory; My Name is Julia Ross) about his treatment at Janoth’s hands. At the Van Barth bar, Pauline tries to involve George in a blackmail scheme targeting Janoth, but George isn’t interested, though he does finally stand up to Janoth, getting himself fired and blackballed, and drowns his sorrows at the bar with Pauline, only to realize too late that he missed his train, with his disappointed family already heading to West Virginia without him. It’s The Lost Weekend time as the tipsy George and Pauline go on a bar crawl all over the East Side of Manhattan, hunting for green clocks to spite Janoth on behalf of a colleague who was fired for wanting to use red ink.  Sheesh, Ray Milland’s characters really need to knock off the booze!  Didn’t Ray Milland learn anything from The Lost Weekend?  George and Pauline drop by Burt’s Place (Frank Orth from; Lady in the Lake; Wonder Man, and of course, The Lost Weekend), where you can find anything from a bubble to a sundial, in keeping with the time theme.  The tipsy George and Pauline keep the sundial as a souvenir.  George is also lucky enough to get a painting by George’s favorite artist, Louise Patterson (Lanchester) .  Of course, she’d probably appreciate it more if George hadn’t taken it from her in an impromptu auction, as she huffs, “It’s a pity the wrong people have money!”

In Fearing’s novel, Janoth’s mistress is Pauline Delos.  Janoth and Pauline have a far more heated quarrel in this version, starting with sex between George and Pauline, which they’d apparently been doing for some time!  For people who are always swamped, they always seem to find time to be frisky!  Anyway, one night,  after a visit to Pauline’s pad, Janoth spots George in the shadows; fortunately, he couldn’t  actually see George clearly.   This time, Janoth and Pauline have a far more heated argument in the novel as they each draw first blood.  Compare and contrast each version:

The Movie Version:
Janoth: “At least this time he wears a clean shirt.”

Pauline: “Are you bringing that up again?  Throwing that cab driver in my face?  You never forget him, do you?”
Janoth: “No.  Do you?”
Pauline:  “No, you cheap imitation Napolean! 
Janoth:  “And you don’t forget the bellboy or the lifeguard  last summer, or the tout at Saratoga, and who knows how many others?  You don’t forget any of them, including the one to come.”

George leads the Crimeways manhunt for "Jefferson Randolph," with ace investigator Bert Finch!
He saved us all from The Thing from Another World, for goodness' sake!
Pauline: “Do you think you could make any woman happy?  Have you  lived this long without knowing that everybody laughs at ya behind your back?  You’d be  You’d be pathetic if you weren’t so disgusting!” (Ouch!)

The Novel’s Version
(Prepare for swear words and adult situations!)

“At least this time, it’s a man.” 

“Are you bringing that thing up again?  Throwing Alice in my face?...You talk.  You, of all people….What about you and Steve Hagen?...Do you think I’m blind?  Did I ever see you two together when you weren’t camping?...As if you weren’t married to that guy, all your life…Go on, you son of a bitch, try to act surprised.”

Well, Pauline is surprised, all right—dead surprised when Janoth loses it, killing  Pauline in a fit of rage!  Whango—was Pauline ever surprised!  Which just goes to show that booze, adultery, and vicious insults are no way to go through life, kids!  In the film version, George and Pauline’s relationship in the film ends as fast as it starts, with him waking up fully-clothed on her couch after their pub crawl.  Seeing Janoth’s car on the street, Pauline hustles the dazed George out the door. Alas, Janoth is outside waiting for his turn with the sly blonde. Though he doesn’t see George’s face as he slips out of sight, Janoth still suspects the worst. He lets Pauline have it, bludgeoning her with the heavy sundial, killing her instantly. The tight close-ups on the quarreling lovers’ angry faces, especially Janoth’s; nobody’s jowls quiver like Charles Laughton’s!   In any case, these scene adds enough intensity to make up for the bowdlerized argument before the murder.

The desperate but wily Janoth gets a brainwave: he’ll have Steve rig the clues to misdirect suspicion, and he’ll recruit the crack staff of Crimeways to track down the culprit, catching a killer and boosting magazine sales at the same time—and who better to lead the manhunt than our own George Stroud!  George can’t turn Janoth down this time; by leading the investigation, he can help to save himself do with some clever misdirection, buying time for our hero to find the real killer as the tension mounts ; George is actually doing double duty as both cat and mouse!  If George doesn’t deserve a huge bonus if he escapes this nightmare, I don’t know who does!  Fans of TV’s Harry Morgan of  M*A*S*H  fame will get a swell change of pace as a superbly sinister henchman!

On a bittersweet note, Rita Johnson didn’t quite live happily ever after.  In a twist of fate, Rita was seriously injured at a beauty parlor when a 40-pound hood which apparently frequently fell to the floor frequently.  Nowadays, she’d lawyer up and sue those dopes!  There were also rumors that Rita’s then-beau, Broderick Crawford (who went on to win an Oscar for All The King’s Men) had roughed her up, but there was no proof.  Rita managed to get supporting roles, but she was never really the same, and she died at the age of 52.To borrow a line from North by Northwest, it’s so horribly sad, how is it I feel like laughing?

R.I.P. to Pauline York, would-be blackmailer.  The cleaning lady isn't gonna like this!

Louise Patterson: "I think I've captured this mood rather successfully, don't you?
(Actual dialogue from the film as George is aided and abbetted by Louise!)
Check out The Los Angeles Review of Books for more on “The Booby-Trapped Life of Rita Johnson” by Matt Weinstock (August 13, 2013).” 

Leave it to a radio actor to help George save his bacon!
(Lloyd Corrigan is one of Team Bartilucci's favorite character actors!)

Baby, you're the greatest!  Wheeling, West Virginia,
we're going home, for keeps!

Milland’s superb performance balances suavity, sympathy, and desperation. He and O’Sullivan ring true as a loving couple whose relationship is being sorely tested. Laughton is marvelously odious and sadistic with a pathetic undercurrent. Macready makes a stylishly devious right-hand man. The supporting cast includes a silent, sinister young Harry Morgan as a masseur-cum-henchman.  I was delighted to see one of our favorite character actors, Douglas Spencer of Double Indemnity and The Thing from Another World as Crimeways  reporter Bert Finch (not to be confused with Burt from Burt’s Place, played by Frank Orth); and the ever-jolly Lloyd Corrigan (the Boston Blackie films;  It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World;  The Manchurian Candidate)  played Burt’s pal, a radio actor of a thousand  guises,  including the faux suspect known only as “Jefferson Randolph.”  TBC has been reworked twice, as 1987’s No Way Out and 2003’s Out of Time. They’re both fun movies, but TBC is still my favorite version of the story.