Just Crazy About That Big Clock
If there’s one movie I adore, it’s The Big Clock. Unlike so many latter-day film theorists, I think noir can provide a lot of laughs, if taken in the right spirit, and for my money, Charles Laughton gives one of the wittiest performances of his career in this one. Was there ever a more delightful corporate tyrant than Earl Janoth? I first saw The Big Clock at the age of thirteen, and he became one of my boyhood heroes from that moment. That lethal argument he has with Rita Johnson is just priceless, and the way he clutches that sundial, with those cocked eyebrows and curled lips twitching, not to mention that stunning fatal blow ... It’s one of the great moments in noir.
How about this clock? Both inside and out, it’s just a fantastic creation. All those eerie controls, and that neat sound it makes when Ray’s hiding behind the face. Then sinister Harry Morgan enters and Ray clonks him. Terrific stuff. Harry’s performance as Janoth’s majordomo and deadly errand boy is aces all around. That great rubdown sequence where he applies the alcohol to Charlie’s corpulent torso is just too creepy and unwholesome for puny words to describe. Further bonuses include director John Farrow’s wife Maureen O’ Sullivan in a rare post-Jane part, and Chuck’s better half, Elsa Lanchester, in another of her patented eccentric roles. Once again, I couldn’t resist some of those nutty pressbook suggestions put forth by the Paramount sales boys. Oh, to have worked in that department back then! Could we have been so brilliantly imaginative as these crack showmen?
A couple of personal reminiscences here. The first involves Noel Neill. She’s actually in The Big Clock, playing an elevator girl during the first reel. The whole scene’s done in a single take (from inside the elevator looking out!) as she chatters along from one floor to the next (we see each floor). People are getting in and out of the enclosed space, some carrying rather unwieldy props, and each with their own bit of business and/or dialogue. It’s a very complex sequence, and Noel’s really good in it. About fifteen or so years ago, I sat in on one of those Q&A sessions with her at a collector convention, and listened patiently (as did she) to the usual line of inquiry that has surely dogged this woman over decades of personal appearances. "Who killed George Reeves?" "Was John Hamilton really just an old drunk?" "Why do you and Phyliss Coates hate each other?" Well, I didn’t want to go that route, so I decided to ask about The Big Clock, and guess what? She remembered it, and remembered it well. It was a one-day job, she said, and indeed, they got it all in the first take.
My other Big Clock encounter was with famed designer Edith Head, and I probably made an ass of myself with that one. A bunch of us in the 1975 USC Summer Cinema Studies Program (I think that's what it was called) were meeting in a little conference room at Universal, and our guest instructor was Miss Head. She’d brought along some of her Oscar-winning costume drawings, and gave a nice presentation. Since we only had about twenty-five in the class, there was plenty of opportunity for individual questions. Now here was the woman who’d dressed Carole Lombard, Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich … who knows how many others, and I’m the student who just has to ask about The Big Clock. Well, she politely muttered, I don’t remember a lot about that one. I then compounded my folly by recalling a favorite scene in the picture…. Charles Laughton falling down the elevator shaft. That seemed as good a moment as any for the celebrated design genius to make her graceful exit, much as she might have done after an encounter with one of those obnoxious Art Linkletter kids on the old House Party shows where she was a frequent guest. I, of course, remained oblivious to my error, and have only recently come to appreciate the full dimensions of my gaucherie on that memorable day.