Friday, April 16, 2010

NYRB Challenge #28: Classic Noir. . .

Sometimes the movie version is almost as good as the book.

The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing, first published in 1946, is just plain fun to read, especially if you are a fan of tough talking, cynical crime noir - in books or movies. George Stroud is the alcoholic editor of Crimeways, part of the Janoth Publishing Empire. His personal life is a mess and things don't improve when he has an affair with his boss's mistress Pauline, and goes out with her to bars and antique stores. Janoth sees a man leaving Pauline's apartment one night but it's too dark to see him clearly. Yet finding the man becomes extremely crucial after Pauline is murdered and Janoth realizes the mystery man could identify him as the murderer. He assigns George the task of finding the man, who is of course, none other than himself. Things come to a suspenseful head one night as George is trapped in his office building as witnesses keep coming ever closer to his office.

The first movie adapation appeared 1948 and it's a classic noir film (it was remade in the 198os as No Way Out). I love the first version. It features a terrific cast - Ray Millard as George (he's far more decent in the film) and Charles Laughton as the egocentric Janoth - and the sets, black and white shadows and music all contribute to the perfect atmosphere. And the film makes much more literal use of actual clocks. In the novel, the "Big Clock"is a metaphor for the working life and even more metaphysically for how George resigns himself to the world around him:
In short, the big clock was running as usual, and it was time to go home. Sometimes the hands of the clock actually raced, and at other times they hardly moved at all. But that made no difference to the big clock. The hands could move backward, and the time it told would be right just the same. It would still be running as usual, because all other watches have to be set by the big one, which is even more powerful than the calendar, and to which one automatically adjusts his entire life.
One other thing I loved about the novel was its use of multiple narrators. George tells most of the story, but there are other points of view - from Janoth, from George's long-suffering wife Georgette (and they even have a daughter named Georgia!), other colleagues, and (possibly my favourite), Louise Patterson, an eccentric artist and free love advocate whose painting could implicate George.
This line also made me laugh at how everything old is new again. George is talking about an indepth feature that the magazine has spent a number of weeks researching. Here's how he sells it to the new managing editor:
'We want to bring out Funded Individuals. In cartoon strips. We'll dramatize it in pictures. . . Nobody reads, any more. Pictorial presentation, that's the whole future. Let Emory go ahead with Funded Individuals in a new five-color book on slick paper.'
For other NYRB noir-movie combinations, check out Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household which was turned into the movie Man Hunt, directed by the great Fritz Lang and starring Walter Pidgeon and a very cocky Joan Bennett. Or the newly published Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham which was made into film with the same title, starring Tyrone Power as a carnival hustler.


Brian Busby said...

Perhaps the most pessimistic writer I've ever encountered - which may explain why Fearing never got his due. I join you in recommending The Big Clock, adding that his poetry is, if anything, stronger than his prose. Not always easy to find, but well worth the effort.

Maylin said...

Yes, the introduction made mention of his poetry - I've never read any but will definitely search it out.