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"I'm in this movie, but it doesn't move me." Howard Devoto (1976)
THE BIG CLOCK: A STUDY IN FUNDAMENTALS
By Mike White
"The big clock ran everywhere, overlooked no one, omitted no one, forgot nothing, remembered nothing, knew nothing. Was nothing. I would have liked to add, but I knew better. It was just about everything. Everything there is." - George Stroud
Originally published in 1946,
Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock is the story of George Stroud, editor
of Crimeways' magazine; one of several publications in the Janoth
Enterprises publishing empire. Despite how much he doesn't want to admit it,
Stroud is a square peg trying hard to fit in a round hole-unsatisfied with
his job and his marriage.
When the opportunity presents itself, Stroud leaps at the
chance to bed a beautiful blonde, Pauline Delos. The two have a few dates,
including a night away in Albany and a gay old time in Manhattan the next
day. The night ends at Pauline's apartment where George heads home, but not
before turning to see another man climbing her stoop. The other man, another
of Pauline's lovers, is Earl Janoth, Stroud's boss. Stroud has been playing
both ends against the middle and it's all about to fall down around his
Janoth and Pauline have a spat over the shadowy man
Janoth spotted walking from Pauline's. "At least this time it's a man,"
Janoth quips. Yes, it seems that Pauline swings both ways. Angered, she
counters by questioning Janoth's sexual proclivities, especially in regard
to his relationship with his right-hand man, Steve Hagen.
"Do you think I'm blind? Did I ever see you two together
when you weren't camping?" Pauline demands, "As if you weren't married to
that guy all your life. Go on, you son of a bitch, try and act surprised."
Enraged, Janoth bludgeons her to death with a brandy decanter.
Janoth then turns to the only man he can trust, Steve
Hagen. The cool, calculating Hagen concocts a scheme to provide Janoth with
an alibi and discover the elusive figure who could connect the powerful
magazine magnate to the crime. In order to do this, Hagen puts the skilled
editor of Crimeways to work, forcing George Stroud into a queer
All fingers appear to point to the man spotted with
Pauline. However, Stroud can't deny his guilt because more than
circumstantial evidence, to tell his side of the story would ruin his
tenuous marriage. Stroud also can't dawdle or stall or else draw suspicion
to himself. He has to give the appearance of doing his typical dogged job of
investigation, hoping to escape the hangman's noose while uncovering enough
evidence to get an edge on Janoth.
In The Big Clock , Fearing employs no less than seven
narrators to tell his tale including Stroud, Janoth, Hagen, Stroud's wife,
two Crimeways reporters and eccentric artist Louise Patterson.
Fearing does a terrific job of capturing each of the narrators' voice, from
the philosophical musings of Stroud, to the reptilian assessments of Hagen,
to the uncontrolled tittering of Patterson.
Hagen concocts the excuse that Stroud is looking for a missing link in a
high-powered political-industrial deal. Meanwhile, it appears that there are
some shady dealings going on behind the scenes at Janoth Enterprises that
don't concern themselves with Pauline Delos. During his search, Stroud is
informed that there is a leak within the organization that is strengthening
a rival company, Jennett-Donohue, for a takeover of Janoth's empire. Fearing
cleverly refers to this treachery with the misnomer for a painting Stroud
purchased on his last night out with Pauline-The Temptation of St.
Judas. However, the identity of the traitor is never properly revealed.
Not only does The Big Clock end abruptly, but the
final chapter is ironically nonsensical in its chronological structure. From
approximately 8:30 pm to some indeterminate hour (which is stated as being
"the rest of the day"), Stroud speaks of making dinner dates and buying
tickets for a show that night. To top that, not more than a page later he's
talking about that afternoon. Perhaps Fearing is making an overly conscious
effort to subvert "the big clock" by this shift in hour. Likewise, he seems
to convey the sentiment that there are no nicely-wrapped conclusions in life
by never explaining the circumstances behind the novel's business intrigue.
He does this via a story that Stroud tells his daughter with a moral of not
pulling at any "loose threads."
After learning of changes that novels have undergone by
the hands of ignorant editors/publishers, I am forced to wonder about the
conclusion of Fearing's novel, despite the words "complete and unabridged"
boldly printed on the cover. So much of Fearing's book is taut and specific.
It boggles the mind how quickly and sloppily his book ends. It's reminiscent
of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn whose climax is completely
unsatisfying; feeling like Clemens awoke one morning determined to finally
finish his tale and that he'd do it before lunch.
An ultimately much more satisfying interpretation of
Fearing's words (and perhaps his intentions) is found in John Farrow's 1948
film, The Big Clock. Continuing their creative alliance, Farrow and
screenwriter Jonathan Lattimer had worked on Night Has a Thousand
Eyes and Beyond Glory (they would team up again on projects such
as Alias Nick Beal, Copper Canyon, Botany Bay,
Plunder in the Sun, Back From Eternity and The Unholy
Lattimer does a remarkable job of adapting and improving
upon Fearing's work. While removing any overt references to homosexuality
and keeping Stroud and Pauline's relationship outside of the bedroom, he
infused the tale with enough morality to satisfy censors of the day.
Lattimer also brings the "big clock," which Stroud constantly refers to, out
of the metaphorical and into the physical by placing a large clock in the
lobby of Janoth Enterprises. Appropriately, timepieces become a well-used
motif in the film as even the murder weapon has been changed from a decanter
to a sundial.
The Big Clock boasts a delightful cast. Ray Milland is
perfect as the suave yet plagued Stroud, while Charles Laughton is
impeccable as the unshakeable Earl Janoth. Laughton plays Janoth as the
tightly-wound master spring in The Big Clock. In speaking of the man
who could place him at the scene of the crime, Laughton impeccably delivers
the lines, "It would be most unpleasant for me if he were to insist he saw
me entering her apartment. I shall have to call him a liar."
Meanwhile, George Macready and Elsa Lanchester threaten
to steal the show with their portrayals of Steve Hagen and Louis Patterson.
Macready perfectly captures the essence of Hagen as described by Fearing :
"He was a good self-portrait of candor [and] his voice was a good
phonographic reproduction of the slightly confidential friend." Lanchester
infuses her performance with mad gales of laughter that keep the audience
guessing about her stability and intentions.
The most understated and effective performance comes
courtesy of a young, dark-haired Henry ("Harry") Morgan as Bill, Janoth's
mute aide. In Fearing's novel, Janoth says Bill "has always taken my orders,
thirty years ago during the hottest part of the circulation war out West,
then in the printer's strike upstate. That was why he was with me now. If he
wouldn't talk even to me, after thirty odd years, he would never talk to
anyone." Usually dressed in dark clothes and slightly out-of-focus, Bill is
present throughout the film standing in the background of group shots and
loitering in the Crimeways office, a constant reminder of Stroud's
precarious position. Without speaking a word, Bill is a troublesome figure.
While menacing, he's also well aware of the slippery nature of Janoth and
doesn't appear to wholly approve of his boss's nefarious actions.
Screenwriter Lattimer does well to dispose of any talk
of a takeover or internal espionage. The ending of Fearing's book was much
too contrite with a cross-culmination of the search for Stroud and the
closed-door meeting between Janoth, Hagen, and agents of Jennett-Donohue.
There is no reason why the search for the mystery killer need be called off
but it is regardless, as if it would simply infringe on the surreptitious
Described as being one of the "lighter shades of film
noir"†, the film concedes to most noir conventions, including the flashback
time structure. The structure is employed to keep audiences in suspense with
the knowledge that at some point in the story our protagonist will find
himself in the jam at the beginning of the story from where he narrates the
rest of the film. In this case, Stroud finds that he's trapped inside "the
big clock," armed guards hot on his trail. The clock at Janoth Enterprises
controls all of the timepieces in the building, as omnipresent and
omnipotent as Janoth would like to think he is. Fearing's "big clock" is
pure metaphor for the invisible framework that seems to control the fate of
man; the droning beat to which most men march and a rhythm that Stroud
denies himself being in step with. Stroud fancies himself a free thinker,
only seeming to escape from the "pincher claws" and "grinding gears" of "the
big clock" when he surrenders himself to its mechanisms.
Shamefully, John Farrow's The Big Clock has only
recently been made available on home video. Until then, one was lucky to
catch it on American Movie Classics. Unfortunately, the only movie
adaptation of Kenneth Fearing's novel widely available was Roger Donaldson's
1987 spy-thriller No Way Out.
Screenwriter Robert Garland's adaptation of Fearing's
work is rife with convoluted Cold War gibberish and technological claptrap.
Moving the primary setting from the Janoth building to the Pentagon, Kevin
Costner plays the protagonist, Lieutenant Commander Tom Farrell. More stupid
than heroic, Costner has about as much charm as a lint brush and his
character is as fleshed out as a slice of baloney. Not to worry, though, he
is not alone as no one in Donaldson's film gives any sort of convincing
Beginning with Farrell telling his tale to two unnamed
agents of some sort, the film attempts to employ a flashback framing device
but fails. The audience is already privy to two important facts: Farrell
appears to be in no life-threatening predicament and he has clearly escaped
the confines of the Pentagon, sitting in a suburban Washington D.C. home.
While not necessarily "safe", Farrell doesn't appear to be in any immediate
life-threatening danger as George Stroud was in The Big Clock.
As Farrell begins his story, the audience is introduced to
his love interest: Susan Atwell. If this film is remarkable for any reason
it's that as Atwell, Sean Young, gives possibly the worst performance of her
career. Her face slathered in make-up and her sexuality amounting to nil,
her presence in the film is immediately unwelcome. Young delivers her
hackneyed dialogue with cardboard plausibility, making
supermodel-turned-actress Iman's turn as Atwell's gal pal Nina Beka, seem
the work of a master thespian.
Gene Hackman played his cards right in the remaking of
another classic film noir, Narrow Margin. But his turn as the
villainous David Brice is usurped by his character's lack of backbone and
the fact that he's not even a murderer! Atwell was merely the victim of a
nasty slip-and-fall accident (and aren't we grateful for the cessation of
her insipid dialogue!). Known for his good performances despite the dreck
with which he finds himself involved, even Hackman can't save face in this
film. The seasoned actor seems to find the film as distasteful as I do, not
even opting to give the scenery a good chewing for fear of a nasty
aftertaste. Hackman leaves that task up to a young Will Patton who plays
Brice's aide-de-camp, Scott Pritchard.
Like the screenplay, direction, and embarrassing score by
Maurice Jarre, Pritchard is not at all subtle in his malevolence. He is
single of purpose in finding the man who could implicate Brice in Atwell's
murder. To this end he employs Farrell to carry out the search, under the
auspices of searching for a mythological mole within the State Department
called "Yuri." Meanwhile, Brice cowers in his office, unsure of the
plausibility of the plan. I'm right there with you, Gene.
For every shrewd action of George Stroud, Farrell makes a
blundering error. For every moment where Stroud had to remain calm, Farrell
flies off the handle. Instead of the silent and threatening presence of
Bill, Farrell is under watch by two goons with whom he often combatively
interacts. He doesn't sidestep them. No, he makes a mad dash for the door.
Still, it is obvious to no one how erratic he's acting.
There is no all-encompassing clock in No Way Out,
physical or figurative. Yet, there is a "ticking clock" which Farrell races
against-a partial photographic image being rebuilt pixel by pixel by
computer genius Sam Hessellman (George Dzundza). Despite his character being
stuck in a wheelchair, Dzundza gives a standout performance. His scenes even
outnumber those of Hackman who is noticeably absent during all of this
brouhaha (maybe he was out shooting another film at the time).
The ending of No Way Out and The Big Clock play
out similarly, even down to some of the dialogue used by Brice when getting
ready to hang Pritchard out to dry. Unlike Fearing's novel or Farrow's film,
though, the search for the mystery man is not called off at the last second.
Instead, the picture of "Yuri" is fully rendered, showing Farrell as a known
associate of Atwell. This should not be a problem as the "real murderer" has
been apprehended (Pritchard proving his loyalty by shooting himself and
taking the fall). Be that as it may, Farrell still makes a completely
unmemorable "daring escape" from the Pentagon, which takes us to the
beginning of the film where he's explaining his actions to the two unknown
Normally, the moment where the narrative rejoins the
moment where the audience was thrust into a flashback is placed in a very
opportune spot in the plot. Perhaps it's just as the third act is beginning
or it's part of an ironic denouement. In No Way Out, however, it
signals that the film has gone from throttling the audience to slapping them
in the face. For, you see, the anticlimactic "twisty ending" is that there
indeed was a Yuri and-gasp-it's Farrell!
All of our expectations about the character have been
wrong and, while not a murderer, he's a bad guy after all! And, to top that,
he's the living embodiment of a made-up story used by Prichard and Brice.
Oh, the irony! Oh, the pain! What was that line about the greatest trick the
devil ever pulled was making the world believe he didn't exist? Well, Yuri
turns out to be alive and well and a completely banal albeit appropriate
ending to No Way Out.
Oddly, neither of the movie versions of Fearing's novel
comes close to capturing the carefree immorality of their protagonist. In
Farrow's The Big Clock, George and Paulette are friends, not lovers.
In No Way Out, Tom Farrell is unmarried while cavorting with Susan
Atwell. Fearing's Stroud is far from being just a poor schlub caught up in
incriminating circumstances one night with the boss's main squeeze. Stroud
has had prior affairs and even when he's being described as a boozer,
womanizer, and a smart-alecky bastard, he doesn't appear overly disturbed by
these impugning adjectives.
I suppose that Stroud should be grateful that there are
adjectives for his character. For both George Chester (Stroud's alias in
Fearing's novel) and Jefferson Randolph (Stroud's other name in Farrow's
film) are much more "fleshed out" even as descriptions of a character than
either "Yuri" or his "actual" counterpart Tom Farrell are. Nothing is known
about Yuri - his habits, his taste in art, his taste in liquor or women.
He's just a name as Costner's Farrell is just a John Doe of a protagonist.
Even though Farrell/Yuri might be a double agent, he's
still presented as an entirely clean-cut/bland young man. The lasciviousness
of No Way Out is unnecessary nudity on the part of Sean Young and a
few out-of-character expletives. When it seems that Garland might be
returning to Fearing's work to restore the sexual orientations of some of
its characters, he doesn't know how to handle them. He merely uses
Pritchard's homosexuality to eliminate him from a list of Atwell's suspected
lovers. Meanwhile, Fearing appears to use homosexuality as both a source of
lewd titillation and as stigmatic immorality. It's no coincidence that the
admittedly bisexual and suspected homosexual characters are eliminated while
the hyper-heterosexual Stroud and Patterson are lauded despite their history
of out-of-wedlock excursions.
The mandatory morality of Farrow's The Big Clock
along with its satisfying script by Latimer prove to do what few films can
accomplish: improve upon the author's original work-filling in necessary
blanks and discarding wasted subplots. Actors are given terrific roles where
their ability to convincingly portray duplicitousness is put to the test. In
other words, Harry Morgan says more with his silent Bill than Sean Young as
Susan Atwell ever hopes to with all of her incessant yammering in No Way
† Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style
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