John Farrow, 1948
Starring: Ray Milland, Maureen O’Sullivan, Elsa Lanchester, Charles Laughton
George Stroud, the editor of Crimeways magazine, is fed up with his controlling boss, Earl Janoth, and is ready for a long-overdue vacation with his frustrated wife and young son. Unfortunately Stroud is too good at his job, prompting Janoth to insist that he stay another week in exchange for an all-expenses paid vacation, or be immediately fired. Choosing the latter, Stroud misses the train to go on vacation with his wife and instead gets drunk with Pauline, Janoth’s mistress and one of his only secrets. Pauline convinces Stroud that they should get revenge against the tyrant by publishing a tell-all book, but unfortunately Pauline is killed later that night. Janoth panics and looks for a fall guy, all the while closing in on Stroud, who is the only viable suspect.
Based on Kenneth Fearing’s 1946 novel, The Big Clock does not quite represent the best of film noir, but comes highly recommended thanks to excellent performances from Ray Milland and Charles Laughton. To be fair, I could watch Laughton (Witness for the Prosecution) in absolutely anything. He’s fantastic as Janoth, the controlling, megalomaniacal, time-obsessed murderer. Bizarrely, he has a Hitler-like mustache that he strokes throughout the film. Through these little details, Laughton is able to add an air of sexual menace to a character that is straight-laced, if not outright repressive, resulting in a villain far more memorable than the film’s plot. Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester (The Bride of Frankenstein) nearly steals the film, as always, as an airheaded, yet sympathetic artist who could make or break the whole affair for Stroud.
Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder, The Lost Weekend) is perfect as Stroud. A mixture of sympathetic and slimy, Stroud is inherently flawed, not unlike other film noir protagonists. He purports to hate his job, but refuses to quit and badly neglects his wife – for example, they have been married five years and haven’t yet had a honeymoon. He should be catching a train to meet her, but instead spends the night drinking with his boss’s mistress. These two men seemingly at odds – Stroud and Janoth – fascinatingly have a number of parallels. While Stroud complains that he is overworked, he obviously strives in the fast-paced environment and it is his innovations that have driven up the readership of Crimeways.
The movie’s main flaw is that Stroud and Janoth are not pitted directly against each other. Janoth is searching for a fall man, while Stroud is searching for the real killer (primarily to exonerate himself), though they don’t realize one another’s complicity in the crime until five minutes before the film ends. The film also largely remains in lukewarm moral territory. Stroud neglects his wife and outright ignores her to have drinks with another woman, but in the novel he actually has an affair with Pauline. There is apparently allegedly a gay subplot, which the Production Code would never have allowed to appear in a ‘40s film. Both Stroud and Janoth’s characters, and the cold, modernist office building filled with clocks – a reflection of Janoth himself – hints at deeper resentments, aggressions, and plots. Janoth fires employees on a whim and treats the rest appallingly. Those who do meet his approval, such as Stroud, are manipulated, abused, and overworked.
This was director John Farrow’s earlier films noir, though he would soon turn his attention to the classic Night has a Thousand Eyes, Alias Nick Beal again with Milland, and Where Danger Lives and His Kind of Woman with Robert Mitchum. The Australian-born Farrow (father of actress Mia) began his career as a writer, but pushed for directorial duties and event spent some time serving in WWII with the Canadian Navy. His award-winning war film Wake Island, allowed him the luxury of choosing later projects. His wife, Maureen O’Sullivan (Tarzan and the Ape Man, The Thin Man), was persuaded to leave her temporary retirement to take the role of Stroud’s downtrodden wife. Though she nearly leaves him, she winds up helping to solve the mystery of Pauline’s killer. This resolves things between them, though the film can’t help but end on an uneasy note, as Stroud’s neglect of his wife was largely due to his personality.
There are some nice supporting performances, including George Macready (Gilda) is fittingly slimy as Janoth’s right hand man, while Rita Johnson (Here Comes Mr. Jordan) adds some nice humor in her portrayal of the doomed Pauline. A young Harry Morgan (High Noon, MASH), Douglas Spencer (Double Indemnity), and Lloyd Corrigan (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) round out the cast, while John Seitz (Double Indemnity) provides some lovely cinematography – much of which is clock-themed – and Victor Young (from The Uninvited) delivers an imaginative, somewhat whimsical score, fortunately one that is less clock-themed.
Available on DVD, The Big Clock comes recommended, particularly for fans of Ray Milland and Charles Laughton. And if – for shame – you don’t who Laughton is, then you should definitely give The Big Clock a try. It’s a pleasing film noir that somewhat breaks out of the predictable mold and offers up enough humor and suspense to keep this from being a nihilistic doom-fest (though I personally love those too). Fans of Hitchcock will probably also find this worth watching.