The Big Clock: Special Edition

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Drama;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, George Macready.

With a larkish approach to drinking straight out of The Thin Man plus several wacky asides in keeping with Elsa Lanchester’s chortle-bait presence in the supporting cast as a bohemian artist, the toned-down 1948 movie of Kenneth Fearing’s novel The Big Clock isn’t exactly “noir” yet would still be a tough one to leave off a comprehensive list of films that are. For one thing, Gilda’s George Macready is in it, looking as ever as if his bed likely has a built-in shelf under the mattress for a stash of whips. For another, one homoerotic scene with publisher Charles Laughton and his “fixer” (a relatively buff Harry Morgan) in a massage table milieu doesn’t exactly portend a Great Outdoors Technicolor musical set against a wagon train.

Fearing’s novel has enough of a rep to have rated inclusion in a Library of America volume, but there was no way 1948 Hollywood was capable of indulging its casual approach to adultery or one major character being a lesbian. There’s so much hustle-bustle going on here, though, that the absence of these narrative possibilities is barely missed. Either via the actor involved or fictional character from the written page, I’ve already alluded to four individuals in the narrative without even completing a second paragraph. And I haven’t even yet mentioned the main protagonist (Ray Milland), who edits Crimeways magazine for the Manhattan-based Laughton empire whose building lobby boasts an imposing giant clock that’s always correct down to the last sliver of a second.

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The picture is quite astute in having anticipated today’s media conglomerates, and though Roger Ailes was a No. 2 who still had to answer to Rupert Murdoch at Fox, Laughton does a great job that he obviously wasn’t aware of in portraying Ailes’s corpulence while cast here as the key corporate honcho. Armed with a revolting personality and power-wielding amorality, he at one point threatens to blackball Milland in the profession merely because the latter would like a vacation. He also plays around, which gets him into trouble when his current mistress ends up dead in brutal fashion; putting a memorable spin on the role is Rita Johnson, an actress whose career was largely curtailed when brain surgery largely failed to correct the aftereffects of a hair dryer freakishly falling on her just a few months after the movie premiered.

Complicating screen matters is the fact that Milland rather publicly had drinks with this once mercurial victim in nightspots (both trendy and un-) shortly before her ugly payoff. (Milland doesn’t serially cheat on his wife the way he does in the novel but will still always have a drink or 12 with a strange woman if asked). The story’s subsequent gimmick — and it’s a good one — is one of the few things that remained in the acknowledged yet all but unrecognizable 1987 remake, No Way Out, much of which is set in the Pentagon. And this is that the person in charge of the sleuthing (Laughton wants Crimeways and Milland to solve the case) finds all the evidence pointing in his direction. This takes a most tolerant wife, and the one here is played by Maureen O’Sullivan, who is adamant that she and Milland take a years-delayed love trip with their son to Wheeling. (Apparently, the conglomerate doesn’t own a travel-tips publication.)

But O’Sullivan turns out to be a valuable assistant to her husband, who otherwise has only an assortment of colorful barflies to watch his back when the increasingly malevolent Laughton becomes adversarial. Laughton’s own helpers are more threatening, the kind that power-mad sociopaths who work in buildings named after them can afford. Macready, his No. 2, is the polished, dominant one (though the way things are going, he’d better watch his back), and Morgan is around for rough stuff — never once speaking a word in the movie, preferring to let his actions do all his shouting. Without giving much away — note that the movie begins in flashback with our protagonist on the lam inside the corporate headquarters — the deeply-in-trouble Milland has to ankle it all over the skyscraper looking for hiding places, the clock among them.

The director is John Farrow, who was married to O’Sullivan in real life and fathered a sizable brood that included Mia. On an impressively thought-out Blu-ray commentary, scholar Adrian Martin tries making the case (and he’s not alone) that Farrow was badly underrated. Maybe, but he made a lot of clunkers, with this picture and John Wayne’s Hondo probably topping the list of his career achievements. (Other high-enders include Milland’s Alias Nick Beal, the intentional camp-fest His Kind of Woman, and a few solid entertainments like Two Years Before the Mast and A Bullet Is Waiting.) Along with a really good script by Jonathan Latimer, one has to concede that Farrow’s flair for movement here (note the all the scenes where multiple characters zip out of the frame and back) really carry the day over one of two things I could do without (the final bit is a little cutesy).

Another Adrian (Wootton) appears on camera to discuss Farrow and the movie’s origin as well, while the actor Simon Callow brings to his discussion of Laughton the historical and analytical ammo he attained writing an outstanding ‘90s bio of the actor, which I read not long after its publication. Callow makes a tough-to-refute case that 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame so burned out Laughton that the actor lost his edge until almost the end of his career — though this movie, Witness for the Prosecution and, of course, his direction of The Night of the Hunter were standout exceptions. Otherwise, what’s an Oscar-winning actor to do when, for whatever reason, he’s electing to do Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd.

The great John Seitz, who backed up Billy Wilder during the latter’s Paramount period, photographed The Big Clock, and I was a little surprised that the Blu-ray was somewhat on the rough grainy side the way the DVD was as well. (We could be talking the same old master.) The appearance is striking enough but hardly as luminous as Shout Select’s recent Blu-ray of This Gun for Hire, which Seitz also shot at that same studio. Better, though, that luminosity be saved for Hire’s Veronica Lake if a viewer has to choose; there’s so much mayhem going in Clock that the eye has less time to focus, anyway. This is a movie I saw for the first time at age 12 on a TV late show in 1960, and has continued to grab me through years that would include my programming days at the AFI Theater when we’d run the UCLA Film and Television Archive print ion the movie in 35mm.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Big Clock’ and ‘Baby the Rain Must Fall’

My Name Is Julia Ross

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Mystery;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Nina Foch, Dame May Whitty, George Macready.

Somewhere around the time we spot George Macready cutting up women’s clothing with scissors as his elderly mother looks on, the thought is cemented for good that My Name Is Julia Ross isn’t your standard garden-variety ‘B’ from 1940s Columbia Pictures. And it wasn’t. Released around Thanksgiving 1945 just a couple months after World War II’s conclusion, JR has been regarded as its year’s dominant big-screen sleeper for so many decades that I first began reading about it as an 11-year-old in the ’50s.

Released just a year earlier, MGM’s Gaslight had won an Oscar for Ingrid Bergman, long before its title entered the modern-day lexicon as a verb for trying to convince people that things aren’t as they appear. Unlike poor ball-of-confusion Bergman in Gaslight’s earlier going, the abducted Julia character that Nina Foch plays isn’t having any of it because she knows that she’s in the hands of charlatans. She just doesn’t know why.

Aside from those occasional plot holes without which speedily efficient ‘B’-pics likely couldn’t have existed, the feminist blueprint here (screenplay by Muriel Roy Bolton from a novel by male pseudonym Anthony Gilbert) gave director Joseph H. Lewis fairly sturdy material with which to fine-tune some stylish touches. In fact, the very first fog-filled shot aptly establishes Foch/Julia’s isolation in London: no parents, no gal-pals and no boyfriend after a thought-to-be-contender ends up choosing another woman. And in terms of work, she also has no prospects, and the landlady would really like to get her back rent.

Suddenly, there emerges a miracle newspaper posting from a job agency unknown to her (and, as it turns out, no one else). An elderly type (Dame May Whitty) needs a live-in secretary, and lonely Julia strikes her as perfection, presumably setting the table for a mutually beneficial union. What’s more, actress Whitty momentarily conjures up warm audience feelings, given all that (then and still) screen currency she built up from her sympathetic performances in Hitchcock’s ever-popular The Lady Vanishes and the lesser-seen but still remarkable Night Must Fall (original version). Then, a little later, Whitty’s son turns around from a window gaze to reveal that’s he’s George Macready — an actor who was just a year away from his unforgettably creepy turn opposite Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford in Gilda and one who was once described by the late film historian Doug McClellan as “Columbia’s all-purpose degenerate of the ’40s.” (Now, that’s turning a phrase.)

No good can come of this, and before we can blink, the agency has flown the coop while mom-son-maid and their small band have fled their London digs for a Cornwall near-mansion where Julia wakes up in bed as waves crash below on rocks below. The joint wouldn’t be a bad R&R spot under different circumstances, but in this case the confused abductee is in a bad dream that keeps getting worse. Not helping is the fact that the initials “M.G.” are everywhere (monograms included), while everyone is telling Julia that her name is really Marian Hughes and that she’s the mentally shaky wife of Macready.

He’s no prize, to be sure, and Julia hasn’t even seen him scissoring the clothing — that act certainly a window into his odd personality, along with a fiery temper that tends to manifest itself in women’s bruises. The rest is mostly cat-and-mouse dealing with the prisoner’s attempts to escape, resulting in a highly competent co-feature of the day whose onetime potency has diminished somewhat over the years due to screen subsequent variations (William Wyler’s knockout take on John Fowles’ The Collector, this is not). Helping things out a lot is cinematographer Burnett Guffey, who like all those workhorse old-timers seemed to shoot about 17 pictures a year, though they obviously didn’t. I’m always impressed by camera whizzes who pulled off Oscar wins in both black-and-white and color, as well as in different screen eras. Guffey did both (From Here to Eternity and Bonnie and Clyde), and in Julia Ross, I never once think I’m anywhere on Columbia Pictures’ backlot.

Director Lewis gets a lot of credit for this, as well he should. This was his breakout picture, along with 1946’s So Dark the Night, which Arrow has just released on Blu-ray as well. (And I’d better take an immediate look at this because the packed bonus section features Glenn Kenny, Farran Smith Nehme and Imogen Sara Smith — or “all the stars in heaven,” as they used to say at MGM). Not that anyone’s slumming here: In addition to a detailed print intro by critic Adrian Martin as part of Arrow’s always slick-in-the-good-sense packaging, this Julia Ross release features recent Michael Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rode for its own bragging rights, and he’s as amused at Macready slicing up women’s clothing as I am.

In keeping with his commentary on the recent Blu-ray of the Raymond Chandler-scripted The Blue Dahlia, Rode is adept at sleuthing old studio records to reject inaccurate claims that have been made about the movie — as with Lewis’s assertion that his picture’s enthusiastic reception led Columbia Pictures to move it to the top of double bills, which never happened. For all of Lewis’s skill with scant budgets (he later did Gun Crazy and The Big Combo), he was apparently one who inflated certain accomplishments, as many do in later years if they’re not careful. On the other hand, Lewis’s swan song Terror in a Texas Town (secretly scripted by still blacklisted Dalton Trumbo) should by itself put him on some map. It’s presumably the only Western whose climactic dusty-street gunfight pits a gunman against Sterling Hayden heaving a whaling harpoon.

Also featured is Nora Fiore (aka The Nitrate Diva), whose feminist-oriented critical take is the kind you can bet the film didn’t get at the time (though with a late ’45 release date, the picture hit just as many reluctant women were being forced back into domesticity from the wartime factory work they had enjoyed). I suppose it’s a thought-provoker linking these two events, though one has to wonder if Columbia chief Harry Cohn had these kind of lofty ambitions on his mind for a second feature whose shelf life he couldn’t envision. For Cohn, male feminism probably amounted to chasing one less starlet around his desk.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Desert Fury’ and ‘My Name Is Julia Ross’