With its rather dreary title aside, The Big Clock is actually an enjoyable thriller that works like well-oiled clockwork. It’s true that oftentimes the most relatable noir heroes are not the hardboiled detectives, although they might be tougher and grittier, it’s the hapless everymen who we can more easily empathize with. Bogart, Powell, and Mitchum are great but sometimes it’s equally enjoyable to have someone who doesn’t quite fit the elusive parameters that we unwittingly draw up for film-noir. Ray Milland is a handsome actor and he was at home in both screwball comedies (Easy Living) and biting drama (The Lost Weekend). He’s not quite what you would describe as a prototypical noir hero.
In some fascinating way, The Big Clock falls somewhere in the middle of those two reference points and to explain the very reasons it becomes necessary to start from the beginning. In fact, our story opens in a cold open that’s foreboding, shadowy and tense. The reasons being we don’t quite know yet and that’s how we get to know George Stroud (Milland), a workaholic chief editor of a crime magazine. He’s got a lovely wife (Margaret O’Sullivan) and a kid but, really, he’s married to his vocation. He’s never even been on a proper honeymoon.
And the reason for all this is Mr. Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) the newspaper magnate with the vice-like grip and enigmatic way about him. He’s very practical in how he shows his displeasure (docking pay and firing employees at will) and it also allows him to exercise complete control in all facets of his business. That and the fact that his life is constantly on schedule, perfectly epitomized by the giant clock that has become the emblematic tourist attraction of his empire.
It’s a fascinating reflection of modern times circa 1940s Hollywood with international communication, journalists, and media conglomerates helping the world to function on a national level with mass media. Oddly enough, the story hardly conjures up Citizen Kane but instead the crime-filled frames of While the City Sleeps.
This film functions on two layers due to the fact that someone has been murdered. The blame is being pinned on a phantom man who looks strikingly like our hero, but simultaneously, the evil lurks close at hand. And things begin to fall into place. Strout is called upon to close in this criminal but only he knows that the man they are trying to capture is him. It’s complicated by the fact that, conveniently, he’s also the only one who knows for sure of his own innocence. After all, he would have known if he murdered someone. Here lies the tension as the film comes full circle back to its beginning – back to its climactic moments. Now we comprehend what’s at stake.
But what sets The Big Clock apart is the satisfaction in every little human interaction. The many characterizations are surprisingly lively and are at times fit more for a comedy than the darkened hallways of film-noir. Rita Johnson takes well as a bit of a femme fatale while Laughton pulls off his role with a certain sphinxlike iciness. Meanwhile, Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester delivers a scene-stealing performance as an eccentric artist who finds herself at the center of this entire investigation because of one of her very outlandish (and incriminating) paintings. And as every noir needs a thug, a menacing, mute Harry Morgan carries the mantle as is necessary–thank goodness he got promoted to M*A*S*H in due time. Everyone else, from the bartender to the elevator girl, to bar regulars all have wonderful moments to shine and show some personality that fills out the frames of the narrative.
Furthermore, John Seitz’s photography is on point, his camera roving with the necessary precision making for dynamic sequences while also developing the perfect tonalities of light and dark within the corridors of the mega news conglomerate. Director John Farrow is not all that well-remembered, but either way, The Big Clock stands tall as a quality film-noir that still somehow finds ways to be invariably funny. It’s a rare but still greatly welcomed combination.