Thursday, April 06, 2006

Favourite Movies #2 The Clock

When soldier Joe Allen gets off the train and enters into the mammoth great hall at the old Pennsylvania Station, the viewer is at once introduced the most important character in the film: wartime New York City. We instantly get a sense of the oppressive hugeness of the terminal, emblematic of the great city itself. This is not a typical New York of 1940s cinema. Here we see people of all races and creeds smashed up against one another- basically, the city in a nutshell.
Joe is on a 2-day leave in the city before heading to an unknown location overseas. It is obviously his first time there and the skyscrapers and hoards of people daunt him. He soon trips up office worker Alice and he lulls her into being his guide, first on a 5th Avenue bus, then to Central Park, then to the Metropolitan Museum. Alice reluctantly follows the whole time, at first wary that he may be a creep but he slowly casts his wholesome spell on the city-wise woman. Their courtship and eventual attempt at getting married are hindered by New York, be it bureaucratic red tape, drunken restaurant patrons or the crowded subway system. Their goal of a marriage ceremony is eventually attained but is best described by a despondent Alice as “ugly.”
Performance wise, the two leads are at the top of their careers. Robert Walker was born to play the wide-eyed country boy, caught up in the frenzy of WWII New York. He only turned in one better performance 6 years later, playing the psychotic Bruno in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.
Garland’s only non-singing role at MGM was a risk the studio took once but was unwilling to do again. She was such profitable musical star it probably seemed ridiculous to keep her in low-budget black and white movies. Our loss: she is completely bewitching as Alice, at once seeming so urbane but her abandon belies her naïve innocence as she falls for Joe. Much like a silent movie star, Garland’s eyes convey more than was in the script. Observe the scene in Battery Park when Joe and Alice first kiss and Alice is held in extreme close-up; Garland’s eyes and eyebrows move so lyrically you’d think she was animated. This is my favourite performance by an actress in any film.
Director Vincente Minnelli does a helluva job creating the city on the MGM back lot. Despite the constant use of back-projection, you never once believe it was not filmed in NYC. He perfectly infuses the film with urban grit and attitude (represented by many characters, including Alice’s roommate Helen and Al Henry, the eccentric milkman) enabling the viewer to insinuate themselves into the action. The time (or lack therof) motif keeps the momentum going until the final ambiguous, yet uplifting, final shot. Truly an underrated, half-forgotten film that is ripe for rediscovery.
Personal note: I first saw The Clock on May 12, 1990 when I was 13 years old. It was on at 3am early on Saturday morning and my mom allowed me to stay up to tape it just in case the VCR didn’t work. I was up till 5am that morning, the latest I had ever stayed up before. There was something magical about experiencing this film that way and in some ways that feeling has never left.