Tag Archives: Ray Milland

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)

Eileen McGarry in her entry on  the film in The Film Noir Encyclopaedia writes that the only visual device of note is the ‘slightly–too-wide-angle’ lens, which is used for close-up of Laughton during his vilest moments’. I hope I have shown above that is clearly not the only visual device of note. But it is a most interesting one: ‘his face is (rendered) just ugly enough to break startlingly with naturalism. The use of this subtle distorition increases quite gradually during the film, until, when the flashback catches up with the opening of the film, the viewer may be convinced of the arch villain’s both superhuman and subhuman capabilities. (p. 39).

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 85 – Dial M for Murder 3D

It’s Eavesdropping’s first anniversary and we celebrate with a film Mike’s been looking forward to seeing for almost a decade. Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder was released at the tail end of the short-lived Fifties 3D craze, and has rarely been seen in that format (even at the time). But it rolls around every so often and this week came to the Electric, so we jumped at the chance to see it.

A dialogue-heavy chamber piece, Dial M for Murder might not seem the obvious choice for the spectacle of 3D, but it’s for this reason that we find it interesting. José, who has seen it before in 3D, recalls his previous impressions of the importance of items – the keys, the handbag, the scissors – and how the stereoscopy relates to it. Mike, who wrote on 3D film at university and has defended it ever since, places Dial M for Murder in context, comparing it to both 3D of the time and today, suggesting how it was ahead of its time.

Away from the 3D, we find the film slight, a trifle, though enjoyable throughout and respectful of the audience – the film’s methodical nature is lovely. We find some of the performances disappointing, and one in particular delightful. We’re glad we saw it, even though José’s spectacles were broken.

José’s note on Dial M for Murder can be found here: https://notesonfilm1.com/2013/08/07/a-note-on-dial-m-for-murder/

Recorded on 23rd August 2018.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

 

Easy Living (Mitchell Liesen, USA, 1937)

A screwball not quite up to the heights of the very greatest but with moments as fine as in any. Edward Arnold plays J.B. Ball, the ‘Bull of Wall Street’, a stockbroker so shocked by his wife’s spendthrift habits that he throws her latest sable out of their penthouse and onto the street, where it lands on Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) and changes her life. Ray Milland is J.B. Jr., the well-meaning but directionless son who goes to work at an automat to show his father he can make it on his own.

Soon everyone thinks Mary Smith is the mistress of one of the richest and most powerful men in the city and she’s showered with luxury hotels, couture and even money. However, it is JB Jr. who’s been staying in her hotel suite after having been fired for stealing a free meal for her and sparking a food fight at the automat. Yes, this is the kind of film where sables fall out of the sky and people wear gorgeous sparkly outfits, live in grand hotel suites, and can stand in their bathtubs amidst sculptures of Goddesses but can’t afford to eat at the automat.   Amidst all the farcical misunderstandings, the stock market goes up; it goes down; butlers have views on stocks; everyone’s on the make but everyone’s equally cynical except for Mary, who remains pure throughout, even when she’s furiously rampaging through stockbrokers’ offices with two huge and fluffy sheepdogs. Confusion ensues. Romance wins. Classes are reconciled; all with a gentle wit, much gentler than is usual for Sturges, who wrote the screenplay. Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin wrote the eponymous song, now a jazz standard thanks to immortal cover versions by Billie Holiday and Chet Baker, especially for the film. A mellow big-band version is the only soundtrack. It’s all pretty heaven jean-arthur   Easy Living is worth seeing for many reasons: Mitch Liesen sure knows how to film a glamorous image; and Jean Arthur, dressed by Travis Banton and photographed by Ted Tetzlaff, looks particularly lovely throughout — even her shoes sparkle and glow. The theme of appearances and advertising is one that Sturges would mine later, more thoroughly, and to slightly different effect in Christmas in July. Franklin Pangborn offers us Van Buren, an expert stylist of feminine couture, and really one of the loveliest of the famed Pangborn pansies. One can even begin to detect the formation of what would later become the Sturges stock company (Pangborn, William Demarest, Robert Greig as the butler).

The bathtubs are gorgeous
The bathtubs are gorgeous

Sturges blamed Liesen for ‘ruining’ his screenplay, which he thought a masterpiece, with bad pacing; and there is something to that: the food fight at the automat is beautifully filmed but the slapstick lacks snap. There are other niggles as well: the character of Mr. Louis Louis, the great Italian chef turned lousy America hotelier, is so caricatured it borders on the offensive; the last line about Jean Arthur finding her true calling in life cooking Ray Milland breakfast….well, it almost ruins the film. However, this has moments that are at least the equal of anything Stuges ever filmed himself (though more glamorous, less cutting and abrasive; the satire is sharper in Sturges’ own films): the interplay between Edward Arnold and his secretary, the firing of Jean Arthur, the beginning of the automat scene, the sable landing on Jean Arthur —  a moment that Rashna Wadia Richards says evokes the spectral eeriness of a surrealist nightmare and that James Harvey believes is the moment everyone remembers from the film — the song; and above all Jean Arthur herself.

Even the shoes sparkle
Even the shoes sparkle

Has Jean Arthur ever looked lovelier? It’s hard to think of another film in which she’s so carefully photographed and to such glamorous effect. Also, in relation to the classic period, we often talk about faces. ‘We had faces then’ says Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. But we rarely talk about voices. Yet think of how distinctive the voices were also: Bette Davis’ quick clipped pronunciation, Rosalind Russell’s foghorn, Katharine Hepburn’s grating Bryn Mar voice. Personally I prefer the low throaty ones that sound like an intimate whisper. I adore Margaret Sullivan’s, for example. But none affords me as much pleasure as Jean Arthur’s, surely one of the most expressive and distinctive voices of the period: low, soft, with a throaty crack and a squeaky end-note, a hushed sound full of a kind of feeling that first reverberates and then evaporates into a kind of sigh, particularly when it’s uttered in excitement. It, she and the film are a delight.

José Arroyo

A Note on Dial M for Murder

dial m for murder

Dial M for Murder

(Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1954)

I saw Dial M for Murder in 3-D last night and what struck me most is what a bad actress Grace Kelly really was and how little that matters when you look and dress like that in a Hitchcock film. She’s just stunning in that red Edward Carrere dress with the matching lace shrug (though the shrug itself, cutting into her armpits as it does,  is badly designed — we can understand why Hitchcock would move on to Edith Head). Also, The use of 3-D WAS and remains exceptional. The whole film is about the control of space, control over how things are placed in that living room, and the fear and terror any misplacement of things within that space incurs, as things being out of place  could and do lead to death. Kelly is able to save herself because her scissors aren’t where they’re supposed to be. And of course, the keys, the key to the crime, the whole resolution to the mystery, relies on first finding out where they are, then where they’re supposed to be, and then realigning where they’re supposed to have been in the light of whose they were. It’s all about the placement of things in space, just like  in a 3-D movie. It’s a fascinating exercise. Hitchcock uses quite long fluid takes, sometimes the 3-D is not for effect, except obviously at the climax, but simply to build a 3-Dimensional look for that space. A lamp, a phone, a purse is what anchors it. They’re where they’re supposed to be. Wonderful to see.

Aside from applauding at the concept, at the 3-D and at the execution, one really is left wondering about actors. I mean Kelly is not good but beautiful, Ray Milland is past his prime, well, he never really had a prime but he’s ok. But Robert Cummings? I’m sure Hitchcock had reasons for his casting but I’m sure they couldn’t have had anything to do with making the film better. He seems fit only for something like Bewitched, as Samantha’s husband perhaps,

David Bordwell offers a very informative take on the film here: http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2012/09/07/dial-m-for-murder-hitchcock-frets-not-at-his-narrow-room/

José Arroyo