RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Charles Laughton

The Big Clock (April 9, 1948)

Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) wasn’t the only film in which Ray Milland got into trouble because of booze.

In John Farrow’s The Big Clock, based on the best-selling novel by Kenneth Fearing, George Stroud (Milland) misses the 7:25 train home because he’s knocking back stingers with Pauline York (Rita Johnson), a former model for Styleways magazine, one of the many imprints of Janoth Enterprises. In the film, Janoth is a Manhattan publishing juggernaut that also owns magazines with names like Artways, Airways, Sportways, Futureways, and Crimeways.

Stroud is the executive editor of Crimeways, and not long after the film begins he offers Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) his resignation. He’s been promising his wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan) a honeymoon since they were married, and now that they’ve been married long enough to have a five-year-old son, her patience has reached its breaking point.

Of course, Stroud strains her patience even further by missing that 7:25 train home, and Georgette leaves for their belated honeymoon alone while he goes out to nightclubs and passes out dead drunk in Pauline’s apartment, fully clothed on the couch. Oh, and did I mention that Pauline is the girlfriend of Stroud’s temperamental boss, Earl Janoth?

In Fearing’s 1946 novel, it’s made explicit that George Stroud has sex with Pauline (whose last name in the book is Delos, not York). He’s a regular cad and even has an overnight bag ready for any illicit sleepovers that might come his way.

With The Big Clock, Farrow crafted a remarkably faithful version of Fearing’s best seller. Stroud’s extramarital affair couldn’t be shown in a Hollywood film, obviously, and all mentions of homosexuality had to be expunged from the script, but in adapting the book Farrow and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer seemed to adopt an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach.

There are some minor changes that neither add nor detract from the story, like how the Strouds of the film have a five-year-old son while the Strouds of the novel have a five-year-old daughter, but there’s one big change that works extremely well. In the novel, “the big clock” was merely George Stroud’s personal metaphor for the rat race — the vast machinery of life and society that never stops ticking forward — but the big clock has been made literal for the film. It’s an enormous contraption that dominates the lobby of the building that houses Janoth Enterprises, and — no surprises here — the climax of the film involves a good amount of crawling around in its works.

The central conceit of The Big Clock is too good to screw up. Stroud leaves Pauline’s apartment moments before Janoth steps out of the elevator and sees a shadowy figure leaving down the stairs. Janoth and Pauline have words, he flies into a rage, and murders her. Janoth’s co-publisher Steve Hagen (George Macready) convinces Janoth that they need to find the mysterious witness and eliminate him.

Since Crimeways has an investigative team, Janoth and Hagen put Stroud in charge of the search for the mysterious witness. Stroud knows Janoth killed Pauline, but he can’t speak up or his marriage will be ruined. He also can’t mess up the search for himself too badly without raising any red flags. All he can do is try to stay one step ahead of things.

The Big Clock is full of nail-biting suspense — especially the last reel — and features fine performances all around. I can’t picture anyone but Charles Laughton as Janoth, a grotesque, vain, sensitive, mercurial publishing genius with one of the silliest little mustaches you will ever see on film, and Milland is perfect as a very intelligent man who knows just exactly how badly he’s trapped but who never stops trying to figure out his escape route. I also especially liked Harry Morgan as Janoth’s personal masseur and probable hit man Bill Womack, a creepy guy who wears dark clothes, has a perpetual scowl, and never speaks.

And in case you were wondering, the director, John Farrow, is indeed Mia Farrow’s father. He and Maureen O’Sullivan were married on September 12, 1936, and had seven children together; Michael, Patrick, John Charles, Mia, Tisa, Prudence, and Stephanie.

Advertisements

Arch of Triumph (Feb. 17, 1948)

Lewis Milestone’s Arch of Triumph has all the elements of a great film, but they never quite coalesce. It’s based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, the writer of All Quiet on the Western Front (which was director Milestone’s greatest film success). It stars the patrician Charles Boyer, the beautiful Ingrid Bergman, and the grotesque Charles Laughton, all of whom are well cast. And its setting — Paris in 1939 — is atmospheric. The city was still a refuge for people fleeing the Nazis, but dark clouds were gathering over France, and everyone knew it.

The review of the film in the May 10, 1948, issue of Time called it an “outstanding misfire,” and that’s as good a description as any. Why? At a little more than two hours, is the movie too long? Is it too short? (The rough cut ran about four hours.)

I could go on and on with this kind of equivocation. Is the film too melodramatic? Not melodramatic enough? And so on. Suffice it to say that the film had a budget of $5 million, but doesn’t look nearly that expensive, and that it began filming in 1946 but didn’t make it to movie theaters until 1948.

Boyer plays a Central European medical doctor named Ravic who doesn’t exist on paper. He is in Paris without a passport, and if he’s caught he’ll be deported … or worse. (It is ironic but not disconcertingly dissonant to watch Boyer, the archetypal Frenchman, play a refugee in Paris.)

One night Ravic meets a despondent young woman named Joan Madou (Bergman), standing on a bridge, possibly contemplating suicide. They embark on a love affair that is as doomed as it is long-winded; they leave Paris on holiday, they return, Ravic is caught by the police, Joan attaches herself to another man, Ravic returns to Paris, etc.

For the most part, Arch of Triumph is an overlong, soapy melodrama. Every time Charles Laughton is on screen, however, it feels like a thriller. Laughton plays Ivon Haake, the Nazi officer who tortured and interrogated Ravic and murdered Ravic’s former lover. Ravic has vowed to avenge her death, and the scenes in which he stalks Haake through the nighttime streets of Paris generate the most excitement in the film, and lead to an exciting and violent conclusion (although the violence as originally written in the script had to be toned down for the Breen Office).

After Ravic’s arrest at about the midpoint of the film, his fellow refugee, the White Russian “Col.” Boris Morosov (Louis Calhern), tells Joan, “History has no special accommodations for lovers.”

It’s this sense of the great weight of history bearing down on people’s lives that is my most lasting impression of the film. Arch of Triumph is a much less hopeful film than the similarly themed Casablanca, but its dour tone suits the proceedings well. I certainly didn’t hate Arch of Triumph, and for the most part I liked it. There’s just the sense that something’s missing from the overall experience when the credits roll.

The Paradine Case (Dec. 29, 1947)

The Paradine Case
The Paradine Case (1947)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Selznick Releasing Organization

The Paradine Case was the last film Alfred Hitchcock directed while toiling under the heavy yoke of his contract with David O. Selznick.

Even though The Paradine Case was filmed entirely on sets in Selznick’s studio in Culver City, it ended up costing nearly as much as Gone With the Wind (1939), partly because Selznick insisted on extensive reshoots and constantly rewrote the script. Selznick even took over the postproduction work, editing and scoring the film without Hitchcock’s assistance.

Some of the money shows up on screen, though. The set used for the courtroom scenes that dominate the second half of the film was a perfect facsimile of London’s Old Bailey. It cost Selznick about $80,000 and took 85 days to construct.

The Paradine Case is a talky, slow-moving courtroom drama, and it’s rarely on lists of people’s favorite Hitchcock films, so I had pretty low expectations going in, and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, though. No matter how static the setting or how garrulous the script, Hitchcock always found a way to make the proceedings fun to watch.

He doesn’t go to the lengths he would later go to in set-bound pictures like Rope (1948), with its takes that last an entire reel, or Dial M for Murder (1954), which was shot in 3D to create a sense of immediacy and intimacy, but The Paradine Case contains a lot of long takes and subtle dolly movements at critical moments to keep things interesting.

I think the biggest problem with The Paradine Case is the performance of Italian actress Alida Valli as the accused murderer Mrs. Maddalena Anna Paradine. Valli was touted as the “next big thing” when she appeared in The Paradine Case. She was known professionally as just “Valli,” and her name even appeared in the credits (and on the poster above) in a different font than the other actors’ names.

Grant and Valli

The central conceit of the film is that the sober, level-headed, married barrister Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck) falls instantly in love with Mrs. Paradine, convincing himself not only that she is innocent of the crime of poisoning her husband, but that he knows who is really guilty — Colonel Paradine’s valet, Andre Latour (Louis Jourdan).

The problem, for me at least, is that Valli is too cold and distant to be believable as an irresistible femme fatale. On the other hand, it does lend her character an air of impenetrable mystery.

Sparks don’t exactly fly when Valli and Peck share the screen, and Ann Todd is pretty bland as Keane’s too-understanding wife Gay, so I especially enjoyed Charles Laughton’s performance as the mildly sadistic judge who presides over the Paradine case, Lord Thomas Horfield.

The Paradine Case is not a film I’ll be championing as “misunderstood” or “underrated,” and it will never be in a list of my favorite Hitchcock films, but I still thought it was really good. Peck’s accent is a little weird for a London barrister, but the acting in the film is excellent, the story is involving, and the direction is assured.

Captain Kidd (Nov. 22, 1945)

Released on Thanksgiving day in 1945, director Rowland V. Lee’s Captain Kidd is a pretty good swashbuckler, even though it’s not exactly a history lesson.

The real William Kidd was hanged for piracy in 1701, but there is still debate about the extent of his crimes on the high seas, and whether or not he should even be considered a pirate, as opposed to a privateer; someone employed by a nation to attack foreign shipping during time of war. But no matter how unjust his execution might have been, the name “Captain Kidd” and rumors of his buried treasure have passed into pirate legend along with names like Blackbeard and Calico Jack.

The film’s prologue shows the “ruthless” (according to the narrator) Captain William Kidd (Charles Laughton) and his pirate crew reduce the English galleon The Twelve Apostles to a smoking ruin near Madagascar and sneak off to a cove to bury their booty before high tide. His band of cutthroats includes B-movie stalwarts John Carradine and Gilbert Roland (playing characters named Orange Povey and José Lorenzo, respectively). When there is a dispute over the spoils, Kidd shoots one of his crew and buries him with the treasure. The impromptu eulogy he says over the grave is a masterpiece of irony.

The action moves forward to London, 1699. Kidd is receiving instructions on how to be a gentleman from a man named Shadwell (Reginald Owen), such as “A gentleman never sucks his teeth” and “A gentleman never pays his domestics high wages.” Kidd’s lust for gold is clearly matched by his lust for power. When he is granted an audience with King William III (Henry Daniell), he convinces the king that he is the right man to sail to India and give a treasure-laden ship called the Quedagh Merchant safe passage through the pirate-infested waters of Madagascar. In exchange he wants a castle and the title of a lord.

William III in this movie is pretty easily manipulated, because he also agrees to Kidd’s insane demand that he be given a crew of condemned pirates. Kidd claims the irreedeemable brigands will be loyal as long as they know a royal pardon awaits them at the completion of a successful mission. Along with some of his old mates from Newgate Prison, Kidd frees a wild card; a tall, well-spoken man named Adam Mercy (Randolph Scott), who was the master gunner to another pirate, Captain Avery. Mercy’s motives are mysterious, but it should come as no surprise to the audience when the stalwart and handsome Scott steps into the role of protagonist.

Scott is best known for his many roles in westerns. His physical appearance and his acting style were the Platonic ideal of a western hero, but he makes a decent swashbuckler, too. Scott doesn’t try too hard to hide his American accent in this movie, but he has a patrician bearing that makes up for it, and the scene in which he locks swords with Roland (who went on to play the Cisco Kid in a number of pictures) is exciting and masterfully directed. And the fact that he does it to protect Lady Anne Dunstan (Barbara Britton) from Roland’s unwanted advances should delight people who like to read into a scene’s Freudian undertones. (Scott and Roland are the two most virile men on the ship, and as they sword fight, the camera keeps cutting back to Britton, who gasps at each clash of steel on steel.)

Laughton and Scott were the same age, but they might as well have been from different species. While Scott was heroic and laconic, Laughton was a grotesque, blubbery-lipped character actor, and much of the pleasure in watching this film comes from his fantastic performance. No one else can deliver a line like, “Of all the slummocky blackguards!” and sound genuinely appalled while at the same time disgusting the viewer with his own loathsomeness.