Two films adapted from the same source material released nearly 40 years apart illustrate Hollywood's evolution from its Golden Age.


ispiriting observations about the youngs' lack of interest in old movies (where old = pretty much anything prior to their birth) choke the platform formerly known as Twitter like kudzu. Panic reliably sets in, and the doomsaying is always overstated; cool kids, being cool, will eventually find their way to the cool stuff from generations past. What's more, cinephiles who've long since earned their stripes tend to forget that you have to sorta learn how to watch golden-age classics, which operate from a set of aesthetic principles that effectively no longer exist. We forget how unusual it is, at first, to see pre-Method actors who aren't necessarily driven by behavioral verisimilitude performing scripts that often value panache over plausibility. The shift in priorities can be jarring even if the screenplay is nearly identical: When Gus Van Sant remade Psycho in 1998, using the same script (written by Joseph Stefano) that Hitchcock had, even a banal non-dialogue scene like Marion hurriedly packing played completely differently, due to Anne Heche indicating feelings that Janet Leigh, trained in another manner, deliberately suppressed. The further back you go, the greater the disjunction.

This struck me forcibly upon rewatching both The Big Clock (1948), a superb lesser-known noir directed by John "lesser-known dad of Mia" Farrow, and its 1987 remake, No Way Out, which generally gets categorized as an erotic thriller. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the former is far superior to the latter, by virtue of not being reheated, and conventional wisdom, in this case , is correct. It's not as simple as that, though. While both films feature the same basic plot—a man placed in charge of investigating a murder discovers that he appears to be the guilty party, and must throw others off of his scent—that's pretty much the only thing they have in common. Partially, that's because No Way Out transplants The Big Clock's story (as originally conceived in Kenneth Fearing's 1946 novel) from the journalism biz to America's national-security apparatus. Mostly, however, it's because the two are so ensconced in their respective eras that they have entirely separate strengths and weaknesses. The Big Clock ambles along in low gear for a good while before turning into a superlative...well, clockwork mechanism. No Way Out, by stark contrast, initially creates a compelling interpersonal dynamic, then swiftly collapses into overheated inanity.

To be fair, the Production Code did some damage to The Big Clock's setup. Both Fearing's novel and No Way Out, unconcerned with moral rectitude, kick off with a tried-and-true complication: Boss and underling are sleeping with the same woman. The boss, upon discovering that he has a rival—but not knowing who it is, having only glimpsed the man in deep noir-esque shadow—impulsively/accidentally kills his mistress, whereupon his most trusted flunky orchestrates a plan to pin the blame on Mystery Dude (the aforementioned underling), unwittingly drafting Mystery Dude himself to determine the fake culprit's identity and track him down. All well and good and exceedingly clever, except that 1940s Hollywood could not under any circumstances have a sympathetic protagonist cheat on his wife, or even have non-marital sex at all. Consequently, the relationship between George Stroud (Ray Milland) and Pauline York (Rita Johnson) in The Big Clock stays on a weirdly quasi-flirtatious level, whereas No Way Out's Tom Farrell (Kevin Costner) and Susan Atwell (Sean Young) immediately start fucking in the back of a limo, with all of the lurid Penthouse Forum sweatiness that a mid-’80s movie could muster.

Again, though, there's more to it than just which film could feature a scene where the lady-to-be-murdered-later playfully removes her fur coat and stands topless in a hallway. Because The Big Clock was constrained in that respect—and also because movies back then weren't in such an all-fired hurry to grab and hold your attention—that film's first hour and change amounts to a slow accumulation of significant details, along with amusing digressions by an eccentric supporting cast. George edits a magazine called Crimeways, for which he's also the chief investigator; we spend a fair amount of time seeing not only how the magazine operates, but also how it fits into the much larger organization run by Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), the actual murderer. There's also a whole lot more planting of actions that will seemingly incriminate George. It's not altogether clear at the time, for example, why we're watching George and Pauline stop by an art gallery, where George outbids another customer (Elsa Lanchester) for a painting—that'll pay off handsomely later. No Way Out doesn't have the patience for that, so instead we just get a magical computerized enhancement program that very, very slowly reconstructs the image from a discarded Polaroid wrapper, creating urgency around the question of whether Tom will find a way out before the program reveals it to be his own face.

On the flip side, however, No Way Out demonstrates a great deal more interest in the people who become enmeshed in the narrative's unforgiving gears. In The Big Clock, there's never a sense that any character, including George, exists beyond the needs of the film's narrative; personalities are either comically superficial or wholly plot-driven, and it's difficult to imagine caring about anyone onscreen in the absence of these specific life-altering events. Whereas I'd quite happily watch a whole different film about Tom, Susan, and Tom’s boss, Defense Secretary David Brice (Gene Hackman), each of whom possesses psychological depth and emotional richness that their '40s counterparts lack.

Which is not to say, by any means, that modern acting styles are inherently superior to older ones, or vice versa. It depends upon context. When Tom's presented with a photo of the dead woman whose killer he's been tasked to find, and sees that it's his beloved Susan, Costner delivers a very credible portrait of shock and anguish and nausea...which is kind of a problem, since it's impossible to believe that Brice and his flunky, Scott Pritchard (Will Patton), who are just a few feet away, don't notice this intense reaction and wonder what the hell's going on. Milland, back in 1948, betrays comparatively little despite being alone when he discovers who's dead. All you see are his mental wheels turning.

But Costner and Young learned their craft in an era that fostered much more spontaneity, and that freedom brings their courtship to life, thereby giving Susan's murder considerably more impact than Pauline's. The two don't merely exchange witticisms—we also get goofy, relatable moments like Susan trying to prod Tom out of a petulant sulk by poking him in different locations, the way you'd gently awaken someone from a nap. Indeed, No Way Out goes downhill right after Young's exit, even though that's exactly where the story proper begins. Not only does the film lose her vitality (sapping Costner's energy in turn), but most of The Big Clock's ingenious noose-tightening—which never got set up, because we were busy instead watching Tom and Susan fall in love—gets replaced by ludicrous and ultimately dispensable action setpieces like a frantic car chase and a shopping-mall fistfight. (No Way Out also has a big twist at the end that's unique to its incarnation of the story and is frankly difficult to retroactively square with everything that precedes it. Whereas The Big Clock's ending, carefully but unobtrusively prepared, and executed with hilarious abruptness, is sublime.)

An entire separate essay could be devoted to the rather unfortunate ’40s-to-’80s shift in flunkyville. Again, that's to some degree Code-enforced: Fearing's novel makes it abundantly clear that Steve (played in the film by George Macready) goes to great lengths trying to falsely exonerate Janoth out of love. (In the book, Janoth kills Pauline after she suggests that he and Steve are lovers. The movie changes it to a more general insult.) Impermissible onscreen then, so Macready just strongly implies a proto-Smithers devotion that transcends professional duty, which works reasonably well. Freed from studio-imposed censorship, No Way Out makes its flunky, Scott Pritchard (Will Patton), not just unmistakably gay but the worst sort of homophobic caricature, both evil and self-sacrificing. It's yet another respect in which these two movies, despite their shared source, have such different, even oppositional goals that they're much easier to contrast than to compare.

What’s more, it’s not as if either one reflects modern sensibilities. No Way Out looks much less encased in amber—hell, you can even see Brad Pitt, four years prior to his breakout, standing silently in the background during a party scene—but it’s nearly as old now as The Big Clock was back in 1987. Nearly four additional decades of cultural metamorphosis have taken place since, and it’s absurd not to think that would demand some mental adjustment from those who weren’t around. Let's cut the ostensibly incurious Kids These Days some slack.

The Big Clock is available to watch for free on The Internet Archive; it's also available for rent or purchase from the usual outlets. No Way Out is available to watch for free on Tubi. It's also available to stream from the usual outlets with a subscription to MGM+.

Mike D'Angelo started writing movie reviews as a hobby in 1995 and accidentally turned it into a lifelong profession. Bylines include Entertainment Weekly, Time Out New York, Esquire, Las Vegas Weekly, Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, A.V. Club, and many others. (Too many, really.) Most of his reviews these days go out to Patreon subscribers.

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