"The Big Clock" **** (out of ****)
Time is running out for Ray Milland in "The Big Clock" (1948).
"The Big Clock", directed by John Farrow with a cast including Ray Milland, Charles Laughton and Maureen O' Sullivan, is not a very well remembered noir picture, released by Paramount, but it sure is a lot of fun to watch and worthy of the public's attention.
Based on a novel written by Kenneth Fearing, "The Big Clock" tells the story of an editor, George Stroud (Milland), who works for Janoth Publishing on a crime magazine entitled "Crimeways". "Crimeways", in the past, has managed to solve murders before the police do. Stroud has created a system in which he and his researchers follow "irrelevant" clues, the clues the police don't bother to investigate.
George is a happily married man. He and his wife, Georgette (O' Sullivan), along with their son (B.G. Norman) are about to go on a long overdue honeymoon. When George and Georgette were first married, George's boss, Earl Janoth (Laughton), called the couple on their honeymoon, informing George he wanted him to be the editor of "Crimeway" and his presence was needed immediately. That was seven years ago.
Will George and Georgette finally get their honeymoon? Not if Janoth has anything to say about it. Janoth, a married man as well, was spotted at the apartment of his mistress, Pauline (Rita Johnson), where that very night, in a fit of rage Janoth killed her. In order to protect himself, Janoth wants George to find the man who spotted him and blame the murder on the mysterious individual. The problem? George was the man who spotted Janoth. What will George do when all the clues to the murder will lead to him?
"The Big Clock" is an exciting genre exercise. What sets the movie apart is the fine cast and good script, written by Jonathan Latimer, which creates a labyrinth of intrigue and does so with lighthearted humor.
Like several other noir movies, the story of "The Big Clock" is told in flashback. When the movie opens it is late at night, we are in he lobby of the Janoth building, when we see George hiding from a security guard, as George races to the top of the building, in the control room of the big clock, the largest clock ever built, it is able to tell you the time of any place in the world, through a voice-over, we hear George inform the audience how different life was for him only 36 hours ago. What happened? How did George find himself in this predicament, fearing for his life, with a murder charge hanging over his head.
Pauline and George spent a night drinking together after George threatens to quit his job if Janoth doesn't allow him time off to have a honeymoon and Pauline and Janoth are on the outs, with a break-up expected. Pauline happens to spot George at the office and believes she and George may be able to blackmail Janoth, if it is revealed he has a mistress. At the end of the night, George takes Pauline home and that is when he spots Janoth getting off an elevator walking into Pauline's apartment.
As George's staff of researchers hunt down the mysterious stranger who may have killed Pauline, George must come up with a way to expose Janoth, but, do so in a way he brings attention to himself and allows the evidence to naturally lead to Janoth. But, how can it, when George was seen in public with Pauline.
Playing Janoth, Charles Laughton is a man who knows he is important. Janoth has no problem throwing his weight around, intimidating employees, testing their loyalty. At the same time there is something subtly humorous in Laughton's performance. The conceited air which Laughton carries himself with a constant brushing of his mustache.
Milland plays George as one might expect. He is smart, quick on his feet, but trapped. Milland was one of those actors that could walk that fine line and be both wryly comical and serious. Milland has some comical moments, especially when he has been drinking and searches the city for a green clock, but, he does make the audience believe he is a man on the run and the audience eagerly awaits, trying to figure out how this mystery will end.
Additional comic touches are presented by Elsa Lanchester, as a painter who believes a great deal in herself and her talent, even if the public hasn't discovered her yet. One of her painting was discovered being carried by the mysterious man that was with Pauline.
But it is not all fun and games in "The Big Clock". Director, John Farrow, does all the things we expect a noir movie to do. Characters walk in shadows, there is suspense, murder and an innocent man on the run, trying to clear his name. The movie does a lot with lighting, usually keeping George in the dark.
Farrow may not be very well remembered today but he was nominated once for a best director Academy Award for the war movie, "Wake Island" (1942) and did direct Robert Mitchum in the decent noir movie, "Where Danger Lives" (1950) but for me, "The Big Clock" is Farrow's best movie. In one respect the movie resembles an Alfred Hitchcock movie, in the way it injects humor into its story of a man wrongly accused.
However I have a feeling the humor in the movie is what has kept it from finding a larger audience and being revered as a classic noir story. Some may be put off by the humor and not take the movie serious. Noir, some will say, should not have humor. "The Big Clock" is not laugh out loud funny but I appreciate the script writer saw comedic possibilities in this story and decided to give the characters a sense of humor.
"The Big Clock" is a very good piece of Hollywood escapism. An intriguing story with good performances by a talented cast. "The Big Clock" deserves a second chance and in some cases a first chance.