Detour, The Big Clock
L: Tom Neal as Al Roberts in Detour (1946) R: Charles Laughton as Earl Janoth in The Big Clock (1948)

‘Detour’ and ‘The Big Clock’ Cross Noir with Absurdity

Like a match made in Purgatory, Detour and The Big Clock are ingenious films with different but self-aware approaches to noir.

Edgar Ulmer
19 Mar 2019
The Big Clock
John Farrow
Arrow Films
14 May 2019

Two of the best film noirs of the 1940s, and therefore ever, have emerged in tasty restorations on Blu-ray, and they’d make a diabolical double-feature on what a malevolent world we live in; that is, the world we create for ourselves while bewailing our fate. At the same time, both films are touched by a sense of absurdity. The items on our menu are Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945), now released by Criterion, and John Farrow’s The Big Clock (1948), from Arrow Video.

Detour (1945), Director: Edgar G. Ulmar

For years, this public-domain eyesore circulated in lousy prints that only emphasized what a cheap B-picture it was, seemingly one of the cheapest, and that became part of its tatty, ratty, low-rent ambiance. It’a an uncanny irony that, of all movies, this one should be restored in 2018 to a pristine splendor that nobody has seen before — and put out by Criterion, the classy Rolls-Royce of video labels. Can this movie survive the upgrade?

Oh yeah, baby. After we get over the shock of any movie from PRC Pictures (which stands for Producers Releasing Corporation but could be jokingly tagged Poverty Row Cinema) displaying itself in shot-yesterday clarity, we sink into the story with a level of detail we’re not used to experiencing. While Detour‘s absurdity had often seemed connected to its cheapness, now that absurdity properly takes on the mockery of a malign universe, albeit a universe of simple sets, some outdoor locations, and highway rear-projections that emphasize its hapless figures as Fate’s evil-twin Ken and Barbie dolls.

The credit sequence plays against jittery rear-view footage of a desolate daytime rural highway, with one person stranded on the shoulder. It’s the type of footage used in rear-projection for driving scenes, only without the foregrounded car. Then the story proper begins in black night, with disheveled Al Roberts (Tom Neal) walking like a zombie, illuminated in the headlights of a passing car to which he pays no attention. It seems a dangerous activity. In the next shot, he’s been picked up as a hitcher, and now he speaks like a zombie as well, or a monotoned sleepwalker pulling the words out by effort.

Then he’s brooding in a diner and nearly gets into a fight with a talkative trucker who plays “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” on the jukebox. In close-up, his face shifts in non-realistic, expressionistically shadowed lighting, as though indicating he’s in Hell, as his voiceover introduces the flashback to when he thought he was happy as a pianist in a New York dive with his singer girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake), and love was “wonderful”.

The thing is, though, he was never happy and we see no sign or memory of wonder. When Sue compliments his Chopin and says he’ll get to Carnegie Hall, his surly face drawls, “As the janitor. I’ll make my debut in the basement.” He adds, “Let’s blow this trap.” She agrees it’s a “fleabag” and a “dump” and she’s tired of it. In a montage of foggy walks home along Riverside Drive, she explains that she’s postponing their wedding plans so she can strike out for Hollywood. As with all hopeful plans, he dumps on it (“the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”), giving us plenty of clues why she’d rather put him off while she at least tries to improve her life.

His attitude is such that when a customer compliments his Brahms rendition with a large tip, which the waiter calls hitting the jackpot, Al’s narration says, “When this drunk handed me a ten-spot after a request, I couldn’t get very excited. What was it, I asked myself. A piece of paper crawling with germs. Couldn’t buy anything I wanted.”

Still, he impulsively decides to hitch to Los Angeles and marry Sue amid more philosophy: “Money. You know what that is. It’s the stuff you never have enough of. Little green things with George Washington’s picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for. It’s the stuff that has caused more trouble in the world than anything else we ever invented simply because there’s too little of it.”

This dialogue and the whole bemoaning “trap” of a story comes courtesy of writer Martin Goldsmith, derived from his 1939 novel Detour: An Extraordinary Tale. Al continually curses his fate and his luck and his chances while living as a miserable S.O.B., and yet his fate, which he sees with a capital F, does sometimes adopt spectacular dimensions. The movie becomes an existential spectacle of an unsympathetic loser who, to paraphrase John Donne, runs to ruin and it meets him as fast.

We won’t spoil the joys of discovering the events that transpire in a lean movie running under 70-minutes, although we’d be remiss not to mention the truly extraordinary turn by Ann Savage as another hitchhiker, Vera. She embodies the harshest depiction of a hostile, relentless, mocking woman in the genre, and she perfectly suits Al’s sour demeanor. They’re made for each other, a match made in Purgatory, two of a noxious kind. Savage’s performance is justly celebrated as among the greatest in noir cinema because while Vera’s a strikingly unpleasant piece of work, she’s always completely believable as a bitter, burned-out human being with nothing left to lose.

While Al utters laments like “That’s life — whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you”, Vera sizes him up with “That’s the trouble with you, all you do is belly-ache” and “Not only don’t you have any scruples, you don’t have any brains.” In one of their crazy, claustrophobic conversation/arguments, she makes it clear she’s a carpe diem optimist even though she has greater reason to belly-ache than Al.

She’s right about his brains because the first absurd thing that happens involves colossal stupidity on Al’s part in misinterpreting a situation with a glad-handing blowhard (Edmund MacDonald) who reveals his character via unsavory anecdotes. Virtually everyone in the audience will understand what’s really happened, but Al is too dumb to figure it out and starts panicking like someone in a pulp story.

What’s especially amazing is that his memory of this event takes on a “meta” element as the story quickly pulls back to the diner and Al editorializes: “I know what you’re going to hand me even before you open your mouths. You’re going to tell me you don’t believe my story and give me that ‘don’t make me laugh’ expression on your smug faces.”

Unlike the ambiguous voice-overs of other noirs, or those with a specific narrating situation like the framing story of Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. (1950), Al is brazenly aware he’s addressing a collective crowd of listeners and upbraids us more than once! The film is self-conscious enough to mock Al’s own self-consciousness, since we understand that his version of events is cock-eyed due to his inability to perceive correctly and his conclusion-jumping. That’s why, despite his assumption, we actually do believe the poor sap. And yet, maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe he really is handing us a line or three. We might say he should have invented better lies, but lies that sound too stupid not to be true could be the final stroke of brilliance.

What happens to Vera (which derives from “truth”) is a fantastic piece of absurdism that makes or breaks the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. It’s a fate calculated to launch directly onto the symbolic plane and bypass credulity entirely, which is what makes it so jarringly appropriate and surreal. It’s the moment we become convinced that, no matter how much Al engineers his own misery, he really may be a puppet in some medieval morality play, if not a Punch and Judy show. In fact, there’s a literal string-pulling marionette quality to the event. It also ties in to the fact that an earlier scene made such a big-deal montage out of telecommunications and operators and phone lines.

A truism I often hammer is that a pristine print remakes a movie, as it allows you truly to see and hear it. Somehow, this not only helps follow a story but reveals basic technical quality previously invisible, like removing the dirt caked over a painting. In other words, Benjamin H. Kline’s photography is terrific when you can actually distinguish the pitch-blacks from the isolated details, like Al in the opening shot on the road. And we can hear how Leo Erdödy’s score, muddy no longer, interpolates clever bits of the Vaudeville song, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”.

Two details emerge most significantly on this 4K restoration, primarily from a Belgian print whose burned-in subtitles have been removed by magic. The first is that what I’ve called the fantastic and absurdist fate of Vera actually comes across as exponentially more believable, simply because more details are now clearly visible. The next is that the subjective effect of Al’s “shellshock”, as conveyed by Kline drifting the camera around the room focusing and unfocusing on its objects, now weaves perfectly from sharp-as-a-tack to abstraction again and again, whereas older prints made it look like fuzz to fuzzier. It’s a powerful moment that conflates the viewer’s mental state with Al’s, and that’s not where we want to be.

There have been other hitchhiker noirs, including Felix E. Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947) and Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953), but Detour remains in a class of its own, right down to a final scene that leaves us baffled as to whether it’s really happening or is merely an imagined projection of the future. Is it the final delusion of a lost soul just wandering forever down the highway?

Extras on this Blu-ray include a piece on the restoration, an interview with Ulmer biographer Noah Isenberg, and a loving 2004 documentary on Ulmer’s life and career with prominent talking heads. The most valuable bonus is Robert Polito‘s liner notes. He discusses Goldsmith’s novel, which alternated first-person chapters of Al and Sue, and reveals that up until the actual shooting, the script planned to parallel their stories and end with an ironic crossing of paths, and also that Lew Landers was the scheduled director. Shortly before shooting, Landers shifted to another film and Ulmer reconceived the project as Al Roberts’ subjective vision, thus creating a masterpiece.

Polito also writes: “As Ulmer’s Roberts foreshadows the protagonists of Jim Thompson’s first-person novels, Goldsmith’s Roth [the character’s name in the novel, which emphasizes Jewish elements] predicts the shattered highbrow musicians of David Goodis’s fiction, especially Eddie, the saloon entertainer in the 1956 Down There (a.k.a. Shoot the Piano Player),” which Francois Truffaut filmed under the latter title in 1960. These are valuable observations.

The Big Clock (1948), Director: John Farrow

We could say this picture’s all plot, but what a plot. The ingenious, nail-biting story doesn’t unfold in real time, but the emphasis on time and clocks almost makes it feel as if it does. Indeed, two of the movie’s personalities are obsessed with real time: the character played by Charles Laughton, and director John Farrow.

Farrow belongs to a handful of 1940s stylists, along with Edmund Goulding and Alfred Hitchcock, who enjoyed staging scenes in single takes that sometimes required elaborate tracking shots and sometimes a stationary camera. This whole movie is a festival of such mise-en-scène, as demonstrated by the first five minutes.

After the credits, the film opens on a city-scape at night, as the camera pans from one skyscraper to another, the scene of the main action, and then appears to glide in through a high window into a lobby where George Stroud (Ray Milland) sneaks silently amid the marble walls. Of course, this whole opening effect is fabricated through model work and process photography, but it’s convincing.

It takes a minute just to pass into the lobby, and then we spend another minute, still in the same shot, following George through a door and up a staircase to the inner workings of a giant clock. The camera follows him to the back of the set as he peers out upon one side of the lobby, and then dollies in front of him to peer out at “our” side as the camera’s eye now somehow passes outside the clock to examine the structure’s facade, behind which George hides. This is sheer mastery of visual storytelling.

Meanwhile, we hear George’s voice-over wondering how he got into this mess, and introducing the flashback to how it all started 36 hours ago. The image transitions back in time while remaining on the same set-up, now with the time and date changed on the big clock, and now a crane shot carries us down and across the lobby to the elevator as carefree George goes to work. This is another elaborately choreographed shot taking about a minute and introducing the clock and its massive Art Deco building, a publishing house owned by the equally monumental Earl Janoth, who’s established by hearsay before we ever see him.

Another lengthy shot now occurs inside the large elevator. While the set-up is stationary, the elevator’s mini-dramas of passengers occur against the background of the doors sliding open and closed upon several different offices devoted to one magazine or another. Obviously, this involves more process work, so let’s shout out the illustrious process photographer Farciot Edouart as well the special photographic effects of the equally great Gordon Jennings.

And let’s note that, while it’s played for laughs, the theme of male predation upon women is introduced twice in the elevator, once when the door opens upon models and in the extended byplay between the annoyed female elevator operator and a young man who keeps hitting on her. He too is an “operator” — an elevator operator in another building. She announces that she’s not allowed to talk to passengers, and George chimes in that Mr. Janoth wouldn’t approve. So much for the movie’s first five minutes, and those of us captivated by style are well and truly hooked.

We learn that George edits Crimeways magazine, a pulp throwaway that specializes in the kind of “true crime” stories he’s currently trapped in. While everyone else is intimidated by the clockwork Mr. Janoth (Laughton, knock-down brilliant), who strolls into a meeting telling everyone how many seconds they have in life and how they have one minute to tell him this or that, rattling his words out in a low breathless voice with only occasional modulations and nervously stroking his mustache, George has a more disrespectful and off-the-cuff air. After several years, he’s planning to resume his interrupted honeymoon with wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan, who is also the director’s wife).

While George rants to manager Hagen (George Macready), he’s eavesdropped upon via intercom in Janoth’s office, where the latter is displeased to find model Pauline York (Rita Johnson). Echoing George’s observation in the public elevator, Janoth doesn’t approve of her talking to him or using his private lift and fobs her off until that night at 10:55. Since she’s a working woman, she’s posited as brittle and conniving and chic in Edith Head gowns in comparison to the soft (yet resolute and suspicious) Georgette, who meets her when Pauline tries to tell something to George at a lunchtime bar. He expresses surprise that Janoth would know Pauline because “I thought the only thing he was crazy about is clocks.” She replies, “Maybe I have a clock.”

While it would be a pleasure to catalogue every shot and scene and all their running times, the point of the story is that Janoth kills Pauline, and when George is called upon to apply his whiz-kid crime-solving powers to the event, he finds circumstances conspiring to incriminate himself. While conducting a building full of assistants on the investigation, he must find ways to derail his own detectives and outwit the merciless fate tightening a noose around his own neck. In another delicious irony, Janoth has no idea that the patsy he’s searching for is the very bloodhound he’s put on the case.

This uncanny and claustrophobic situation creates not only a noir film and not only one of the most suspenseful films of its decade, but just for good measure, one of the most hilarious, and that’s not an adjective usually applied to the genre. The 1930s and ’40s did have a line in snappy comedy-mysteries full of slapstick and comic characters, but they’re of a different order from this dark gem.

With its absurd cross-purposes and increasingly frantic pace, The Big Clock resembles a noir film as it would be constructed by Preston Sturges. Like a Sturges comedy, this is a lavishly conceived world playing by its own eccentric rules, peopled by dozens of characters putting in their two cents all at once. While Sturges generated a unique species of comic suspense as audiences anticipate the crash of heroes skating blithely on thin ice, this film creates a suspense of brutal violence and sinister shadows that just happens to be a scream — while also commenting on how ruthless egomania serves capitalism (and vice versa), how the multifarious media are both manipulated and manipulating, the functions of art objects, and the uses and symbolism of elevators, their rise and fall.

One more Sturges connection. Among his finest achievements is The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), which is about the frantic search for a man whose name might be entirely fictional or might stand in for someone else, and that describes The Big Clock with its dragnet for one “Jefferson Randolph”. One of the recurring gags in the Sturges film is how William Demarest’s character keeps taking pratfalls, as of slipping on a roller skate. That gag is alluded to here, and a part of its cleverness is that it takes place offscreen. It’s still funny.

We haven’t even mentioned Elsa Lanchester, a prime source of comedy who gets funnier as the film barrels along. Discovering her exact role in the plot is one of the film’s evolving surprises and she makes viewers laugh out loud. This is one of several movies she made with her husband, Laughton.

Among the large cast are Harry Morgan as a menacing masseur who never utters a word while all about him are garrulous; Lloyd Corrigan as a radio actor who provides a vital clue and functions as multiple voices all by himself; Dan Tobin, Harold Vermilyea, Richard Webb and Luis Van Rooten as investigators who are alternately excited and baffled by what they turn up; Frank Orth as a jolly bartender whose place is full of junk; Henri Letondal as a nervous antique dealer (so at least three locations, including one person’s house, are crammed with junk); and the ever-welcome Theresa Harris, glimpsed all too briefly as George’s maid.

If ever a Hollywood suspense script could be called brilliant, The Big Clock is it, flat-out and with bells on. At least two brilliant writers were involved. The 1946 novel is by Kenneth Fearing, known primarily for his poetry; the Library of America has published a collection of his poems. Fearing’s book displays a similar melange of tones, including the comic, and it presents the hero as a darker, more flawed figure within a narrative using multiple first-person narrators. While that device harks back to Wilkie Collins, it came into sort-of-modernist vogue, as with Vera Caspary’s Laura (1942) or Martin Goldsmith’s Detour (1939), by way of assimilating William Faulkner‘s The Sound and the Fury (1929). Fearing’s novel also has openly homosexual details that the film only hints through casting and staging.

The scriptwriter, Jonathan Latimer, was a crime novelist who earned a reputation for combining hard-boiled detectives with screwball comedy and black humor, and The Big Clock finds him firing on both cylinders in seamless conjunction. His peculiar injections begin early, as in that elevator scene where one of the passengers is carrying a giant fish. Later, Latimer was a staple writer for the Perry Mason TV series, and his plots and titles often turned on such animal totems, as I discussed for PopMatters in “Positive Perry meets Laughing Latimer in ‘Perry Mason: Season 7, Volume 1‘” (11 Sep 2012).

Latimer seemed to get along with Farrow, since he wrote for ten of his pictures. In this banner year of 1948, they also collaborated on the wonderful Night Has a Thousand Eyes with Edward G. Robinson, an atmospheric clairvoyance-noir that still hasn’t received its due. Latimer re-teamed with Farrow and star Milland on two pictures: the devil fantasy Alias Nick Beal (1949) and western Copper Canyon (1950), both solid work.

Actually, producer Richard Maibaum also was a good writer, which is probably why his output as producer attend to the needs of the script. He wrote and produced three Alan Ladd vehicles as well as Mitchell Leisen’s No Man of Her Own (1950), a noir for Barbara Stanwyck. Later he co-wrote Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956) and, most famously, a long string of James Bond pictures.

Completing the literary extravaganza behind this film, Farrow also happened to be an accomplished writer of fiction, poetry and history, and was therefore sensitive to his scripts. His most famous book is probably the biography Damien the Leper (1937). It’s fair to regard The Big Clock as his cinematic masterpiece, or at least one of them. Another, at least as an exercise in camera style and staging, is the underrated Two Years Before the Mast (1946), one of several films he made with Alan Ladd.

As our description of the film makes clear, The Big Clock owes much to its photographer (John F. Seitz), its atypically three art directors (Hans Dreier, Roland Anderson, Albert Nozaki), its set decorators (Sam Comer, Ross Dowd) and its editors (Eda Warren, LeRoy Stone). With this script, these actors and this director, here’s a film in which everyone was whirring at the top of their game.

If the hero’s double-bind of investigating a murder whose clues point to himself, and trying to throw off the detectives on his trail while investigating those clues, strikes a chord with some viewers, that may be because the premise was updated for Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out (1987) starring Kevin Costner. That film throws in a final surprise that bears no resemblance to the original.

Those with longer memories for the corners of noir may also recall Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet (1952), another brilliant concept in which a crime reporter investigates a death without realizing that his own editor-publisher is responsible, and the latter keeps throwing wrenches into the investigation. In both cases, the guilty parties are physically big men (Broderick Crawford in that film) in addition to being the boss. That might seem like a revision of The Big Clock, but it’s based on Samuel Fuller’s 1944 novel The Dark Page, and Fearing was partly inspired by it, according to the bonus material.

The Blu-ray provides an excellent print of this Paramount film. Extras include an interview on Laughton by biographer Simon Callow, an interview by critic Adrian Wootton, the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation with Milland and O’Sullivan reprising their roles, and a commentary by Adrian Martin. While Wootton doesn’t seem to think Farrow is generally a notable stylist, I’m pleased to report that the other Adrian does him justice as a stylist and a writer. He draws links with Fritz Lang and Fearing’s work for the Time-Life publishing empire, and he makes comparisons with the novel. In his soft-spoken and well-researched way, loaded with scholarly book notes, Martin provides an exemplary appreciation among the best commentaries I’ve heard recently.