I’ve never read or even acquired a copy of Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock; in fact, I’m still kicking myself for not picking it up when, as I recall, Harper Perennial reissued it in 1980 along with Francis Iles’s Before the Fact, adapted by Alfred Hitchcock as Suspicion (1941). But at that time I presumably had not yet seen John Farrow’s 1948 film version, starring Ray Milland at his most charming and debonair, and it would be another seven years before Roger Donaldson remade it as No Way Out (1987). Just for fun, Madame BOF and I sat down this past weekend and watched them both on successive nights, thus confirming No Way Out as an exemplar of one of my cinematic principles, i.e., the best remakes tread a fine line between being too similar to and too different from the original.
Adapted by Jonathan Latimer, as was the 1942 version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, The Big Clock opens with Milland’s George Stroud hiding in the control room of the massive chronometer that forms the metaphoric heart of a global magazine-publishing empire, run with an iron fist by time-obsessed Earl Janoth (well-cast Charles Laughton). A Hitchcockian innocent man on the run, George recalls the events of the past 36 hours, which began with him preparing to take his wife and their young son on an oft-delayed honeymoon. Best known onscreen as Tarzan’s mate and offscreen as Farrow’s (bearing him seven children, including Mia), Maureen O’Sullivan is the long-suffering Georgette Stroud, who threatens George that if he misses this honeymoon train, it will be the last.
Georgette is already in a jealous tizzy after catching the tail end of, and misinterpreting, a chance meeting in a hotel bar between George and Janoth’s mistress, Pauline York (Rita Johnson), who has been trying to cadge more money out of him. History repeats itself as Janoth once again tries to wreck George’s plans, and when threatened with dismissal if he does not postpone his honeymoon yet again, George tells Janoth to take his job and shove it. When George gets a call from the equally disillusioned Pauline, he’s not quite ready to agree to her suggestion that they blackmail Janoth, but they do go on an epic bender—shades of Milland’s Oscar-winning role in The Lost Weekend (1945)!—that ends with George passed out on her couch, Georgette having left for the train station without him.
When Janoth inconveniently shows up at Pauline’s apartment, he sees a shadowy figure leaving by the back stairs just as he’s arriving, and in a jealous rage he brains her with a sundial they had picked up on their escapades. Janoth quickly flees to the home of his sycophantic right-hand man, Steve Hagen (the ever-slimy and oh-so-good-at-it George Macready), who comes up with the ingenious solution of pinning the whole thing on the anonymous shadowy figure. They ask George to reconsider and identify him, using the unique “irrelevant clue” method that has served him in such good stead in his tenure as the editor of Janoth’s Crimeways magazine, and because a wealth of circumstantial evidence misleadingly implicates him, George knows he has no choice but to agree.
This unusual premise is, in my opinion, the element that most makes The Big Clock stand out: Janoth and Hagen have unwittingly assigned George to track down himself, so he must appear to be doing his job while actually stalling or deflecting the investigation. It’s not a whodunit, because we know right from the outset, Columbo-style, that Janoth is the killer, as George himself soon realizes; it’s a question of whether he can clear himself by proving it in time, especially when the building is sealed to let one of several witnesses identify the “killer.” Increasing the familial aspect, Elsa Lanchester (the longtime Mrs. Laughton) plays one of said witnesses, eccentric artist Louise Patterson, who agrees to create a rendering of the suspect, and then discovers that George is one of her few fans.
Not to be confused with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 film of the same name, No Way Out is dedicated to its celebrated cinematographer, John Alcott, who died before it was released and had won an Oscar for Barry Lyndon (1975), one of four collaborations with Stanley Kubrick. It also features a splendid score by the great Maurice Jarre and a fine cast headed by Kevin Costner, fresh from playing Eliot Ness in The Untouchables that same year; Gene Hackman, an Oscar-winner for the BOF faves The French Connection (1971) and Unforgiven (1992); and Sean Young, who achieved genre immortality with Blade Runner (1982). Donaldson’s credits include The Bounty (1984), Dante’s Peak (1997), and The Getaway (1994), which I preferred to Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 original.
One of the interesting things about No Way Out is that despite also being related in a flashback, during an interrogation of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tom Farrell (Costner), the first third bears virtually no resemblance to The Big Clock. At a ritzy Washington, D.C., function, Tom encounters Susan Atwell (Young), who cops to being the “date” of a married man, and the two fall immediately into bed together, or at least into the back seat of her chauffeured limousine, accompanied by a cheesy ’80s title song from Paul Anka. An act of heroism at sea brings Tom to the attention of Defense Secretary David Brice (Hackman), who recruits him as his liaison to the intelligence community, and Tom is stunned to learn that the man with whom he shares Susan’s sexual favors is his new boss.
Around the 45-minute mark, synchronicity suddenly kicks in: Brice indistinctly sees, but is clearly seen by, the departing Tom as he arrives at Susan’s love nest, and accidentally propels her over a balcony and through a glass coffee table. Brice’s hero-worshipping advisor, Scott Pritchard, is now overtly gay (although those looking for undertones might find them in the Janoth-Hagen relationship), and played by another frequent cinematic sleazeball, Will Patton, who graduated to main villain in Costner’s The Postman (1997). Befitting the remake’s espionage milieu, Pritchard proposes that they finger Susan’s killer as the elusive “Yuri,” a Soviet mole who has been rumored for years to have penetrated the Pentagon, and get Tom either to smoke him out or to serve as the fall guy if he fails.
Technology plays an important part in the updating, such as the computer program that can pull an identifiable image off the backing of a Polaroid photo, forcing Tom to confide in his old friend, computer whiz Sam Hesselman (George Dzundza), and ask him to slow the process. This increases the suspense during the climactic sealed-building sequence, and Tom also has Sam insert evidence into the State Department’s system that will link Brice to Susan. Donaldson and screenwriter Robert Garland up the action quotient by replacing Janoth’s silently sinister enforcer, Bill Womack (M*A*S*H’s Harry Morgan), with two death-squad goons and adding a car chase in which Tom tries to stop them from killing Susan’s friend Nina Beka (Iman), who knew all about her relationship with Brice.
Both films end with the Janoth figure painted into a corner and attempting to throw his loyal number two under the bus, although the outcomes are rather different, but No Way Out adds a last-minute twist that seems superfluous, and serves only to give the picture a downbeat ending. While each has its far-fetched elements, I think the story of The Big Clock hangs together a little better, so if push came to shove, I’d probably pick that over No Way Out. That said, however, both versions hold up extremely well as entertainment, effectively representing their respective categories of ’40s mystery-noir and ’80s action-suspense, and No Way Out demonstrates how a talented team of filmmakers can take the central elements of a vintage film and rework them into a new one that stands on its own.