Director: John Farrow
Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer
Based on a Novel by: Kenneth Fearing
Starring: Ray Milland, Maureen O’Sullivan, Charles Laughton, George Macready, Rita Johnson, Elsa Lanchester, Harold Vermilyea, Harry Morgan
Running Time: 95 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
The Big Clock is a film that did fairly well when it was originally released back in 1948, but soon disappeared. The film’s story, based on a novel by Kenneth Fearing, must have remained in some people’s minds though, as it was remade in 1987 as the Kevin Costner vehicle No Way Out. I can’t remember much about that film either (other than the raunchy opening sex scene that was notorious late-night-TV fodder for adolescent boys back in the early 90s) but seeing another film noir added to Arrow Academy’s release schedule was enough to get me interested.
After teasing us with our protagonist George Stroud (Ray Milland) hiding from the authorities inside the titular device, The Big Clock flashes back a short while to find Stroud excited about finally taking a break from his stressful job as a crime-magazine editor to go on a much-delayed honeymoon with his wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan) and their son. Stroud’s overbearing boss Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) has other plans though and tries to force him to postpone his break yet again. Stroud refuses and is happy to be fired as he’s had enough of Janoth’s tyrannical ways.
However, before Stroud gets home to head off on his break, he bumps into Pauline York (Rita Johnson) at a bar. She’s Janoth’s mistress and proposes the two of them blackmail him. As the two of them talk, Stroud loses track of time and misses his train, causing his frustrated wife to head off without him. So he drowns his sorrows and goes on a bender with York, ending up crashing over at her place.
Janoth later shows up, so Stroud quickly sneaks off, though not before his former boss catches a brief glimpse of him. Thankfully for Stroud, Janoth doesn’t see him clearly enough to recognise him, but it causes him to become jealous and this, added to some insults thrown at him from York, leads Janoth to murder the woman.
At first, Janoth thinks he’s ruined, but when he speaks to his intensely loyal assistant Hagen (George Macready) they devise a plan to shift the blame onto the mysterious prior visitor to York’s apartment. The film’s clever early twist comes when Janoth then calls upon Stroud, who was renowned for finding missing persons, to come back to work and lead the hunt for York’s ‘killer’ before the police catch wind of it. So Stroud must solve the real mystery as soon as possible, before the net he’s helping cast himself, lands on him!
That’s a lengthier synopsis than I usually give in my reviews, but it helps show the wonderfully constructed plot that, dare I say it, works like clockwork. Fearing’s source material may be largely to do with this, but supposedly much has changed from his novel and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer must be praised for perfectly adapting it, creating classic movie suspense and adding a lot of humour into the mix.
Indeed, the film has much more humour than your average noir, which often has sharp dialogue but rarely has the level of farce you see here in a couple of scenes. Most notable is the inclusion of a quirky modern artist played by Elsa Lanchester (Laughton’s wife), who is the focus of the most clearly comic sequences.
Impressing as much as the sharp writing is the direction by John Farrow. He’s not a household name by any means, but from the look of this and comments made in some of the special features, maybe he should be. Employing a lot of elaborately staged long takes (of which Farrow was known for), with plenty of complex camera movement, it’s a stylish tour-de-force of filmmaking on top of being a lot of fun to watch.
And if that wasn’t enough, we’re treated to some great performances. Milland is always reliable and does a decent job of playing the desperate central character here, but it’s Laughton who gets to show off. This character perhaps wasn’t a stretch for the immensely respected actor known for meaty and demanding roles such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but he makes the most of it, portraying Janoth as a cold and calculating villain who you’re desperate to see get his comeuppance.
I loved the film from start to finish. It’s a hugely enjoyable and fast-paced noir that’s laced with comedy without losing the dark edge the genre is known for. It’s an underrated gem that deserves to be rediscovered. Being such fun to watch, impressively performed, cleverly written and directed with style and energy, it’s not hard to fall for its charms and comes very highly recommended.
The Big Clock is out on 27th May on Blu-Ray, released by Arrow Academy. The picture is detailed and looks good for the most part, although there was a slight flicker at times and some very light lines and dust here and there. The sound came through nicely.
There are a few special features included too:
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation transferred from original film elements
– Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio soundtrack
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– New audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin
– Turning Back the Clock, a newly filmed analysis of the film by the critic and chief executive of Film London, Adrian Wootton
– A Difficult Actor, a newly filmed appreciation of Charles Laughton and his performance in – The Big Clock by the actor, writer, and theatre director Simon Callow
– Rare hour-long 1948 radio dramatisation of The Big Clock by the Lux Radio Theatre, starring Ray Milland
– Original theatrical trailer
– Gallery of original stills and promotional materials
– Reversible sleeve featuring two original artwork options
– FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Christina Newland
I’m always glad to see Adrian Martin’s name pop up in special features and his commentary doesn’t disappoint. As usual, it’s well researched and packed with interesting facts about the production and some thoughtful analysis. The other two video pieces are illuminating too. I haven’t listened to the radio drama, but it’s a welcome addition to this fairly modest but well-compiled package.