Tag Archives: Elsa Lanchester

The Big Clock (John Farrow, 1948)

The Big Clock

 

A justly famous noir with an ingenious opening sequence tied together by a first person voice-over narration from Ray Milland as magazine editor George Stroud that sets up a theme, a structure for the narrative, the look and feel of a particular world, an objective and a deadline in which to achieve it, as well as thematic tropes (see below).

It stars Ray Milland, Rita Johnson and Maureen O’Sullivan (then married to director John Farrow, and mother of Mia). But it is the supporting cast, George Macready, Elsa Lanchester, Henry Morgan, and particularly Charles Laughton (see below), who delight.

A you can see above Charles Laughton creates a whole series of effects and personality traits through a series of fascinating choices: the way he looks at his watch but then looks in the other direction, the drawling voice, the pinky clearing up the corner of his mouth. He makes the banal fascinating and revealing.

I love this very intense little scene, shot from below, Laughton’s masses of flesh roiling from the massage a very young Hernry Morgan as Bill Womack is giving him as Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) instructs him to kill. Is Womack more than his henchmen? They never look at each other and we know that Janoth is involved with a woman. Yet the way Farrow sets up these images of evil have an undoubtedly pervy sexual component, one maybe made more potent by not being quite clear.

 

The film includes a very fine montage which poetically indicates a drunken evening, references the magazine, the job, and the deadline; the wife leaving without him and those pressures; the significance of the painting he outbid the painter to purchase (we don’t yet know that he’s an admirer and collector). There’s something interesting to be explored in how modern art signifies in film noir. In Phantom Lady it’s an indicator of perversion and evil. Here, particularly through Elsa Lanchester’s eccentric and witty performance, it’s treated as a joke. Lanchester’s performance is a delight but the way the film conceptualises the character she plays — Louise Patterson — is unworthy of the film, a cheap stunt amidst work that is otherwise very fine.

 

The film is of course told in the classic style and has wonderful ‘teachable’ moments like the use of anticipatory space above.

The set-piece at the end is visually dazzling, tense, thrilling, structurally coherent, picking up from the initial voice-over and responding to it. Much of eighties cinema starts from, is organised around, this type of set-piece as spectacular attractions, often forgetting the narrative weight that is built into forties’ versions such as this one. Kevin Costner starred in a loose remake this film, No Way Out (Roger Donaldson, 1985)

 

The superb Arrow Academy edition contains a very informative discussion of the film by Adrian Wooton and a film commentary by Adrian Martin. If you can get past how actory Simon Callow is in his every intonation, he gives a superb demonstration in how Charles Laughton is in top form in what is a fallow period of his career and in what basically amounts to a supporting role.

José Arroyo

The Spiral Staircase. (Robert Siodmak, USA, 1945)

The Spiral staircase 1946

 

 

A High-Concept film avant la lettre. There’s a serial killer on the loose in a small New England town early into the 20th-Century. The killer generally chooses women with some kind of imperfection, and our heroine, Dorothy McGuire, a maid who works in a mansion for a rich family, is mute. The film delights with every Gothic thriller cliché in the book: an orphaned heroine in an overstuffed mansion full of spiral staircases and dark corners, a Freudian explanation to McGuire’s muteness, music that positively telegraphs what you’re meant to feel, a portentous Surreal dream sequence, a camera that takes you right into the killer’s eye but not quite into his mind(at least until the end),  a McGuffin, candle-lights that blow out, streaming wind, pouring rain, dark cellars, and a narrative that keeps taking you down false-corridors but never quite cheats. The question is not whether the killer will get the star; nobody kills the star in a big-budget studio film in 1945 Hollywood.  Instead the film taunts and teases us to wonder who the killer might be and when exactly the star will scream.

The cast is quite good if not quite top grade (Dorothy McGuire and George Brent instead of, say, Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer). McGuire is effective if a bit out of her league; Brent is Brent no matter what league he’s in; and there’s a reason we no longer remember Kent Smith and Gordon Oliver, even after playing   important roles such as here. The rest of the supporting cast, however, is a film buff’s delight (Elsa Lanchester as the scullery maid that likes her nip of brandy, Ethel Barrymore as a bed-ridden matron who’s handy with a gun; Rhonda Fleming, before she became the Technicolor hottie with the flaming red hair in low-budget spectacles, as, I kid you not, a secretary).

The real star, however, is director Robert Siodmak: his camera movements alone are a thrill to see; they creep, glide, close in, pay attention, sweep, peek, penetrate; all in wonderful compositions that will elicit awe and joy in those who can appreciate them. Nicholas Musuruca, who was also dop on Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1942) and Out of the Past (Tourneur again, USA, 1947), produces wonderful work on camera here as well. A classic which perhaps has been slightly overlooked because it begs comparison with Hitchock’s work, indeed solicits it, his influence is everywhere evident here, and slightly falls short.

It’s worth noting here that I paid £7.40 to see it at the Electric Cinema in Birmingham where they showed it in what seemed a not-very-good DVD and had to be told-off by me because they were showing it in the wrong ratio.

It might also be worth noting that when the cinema is very dark (as it should be and as the Electric was) when sparse, high contrast, quasi-noir lighting like this goes very dark, as the eye focuses on the source of light, the image seems to expand into wide-screen. I wonder if this is just my own personal perception or if the experience is more widespread.

José Arroyo