The Big Clock
directed by John Farrow
starring Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester
John Farrow’s 1948 film The Big Clock is a decidedly unique creation. It is the highly unlikely hybrid of a film noir thriller and screwball comedy that manages to stay true to both genres. It is able to balance the oddball characters, situations, and timing of the comedy without reducing the danger and tension of the film noir style. Sure there had been lots of comedy mystery films going back into the silent with The Cat and the Canary through the just ended Thin Man series of detective films with Nick & Nora Charles. But the tone of those films was pretty much light throughout. Farrow managed to weave the comedy through the noir and still pack a desperate, shadowy, wallop. Curiously 1948 was also the year of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein where Bud and Lou met several of the Universal Monsters. The genius of that film was they played the monsters straight and dropped the slapstick into the monster world instead of turning the monsters into jokes. That’s what The Big Clock does – it has all the tension, danger, and mystery of a film noir and then drops in the zany world of characters that not only lead to Ray Milland being set up for a murder he didn’t commit, but they prove in the end to be his salvation. Helping all of this action along is a who’s who of character actors including Laughton’s wife Elsa Lancaster (The Bride of Frankenstein), Geore Macready (Paths of Glory), Harry Morgan (M*A*S*H*), Margaret Field (Sally Field’s mother) and Noel Neil (TV Superman‘s Lois Lane),
The big clock dominates the lobby of Janoth Publications building. It represents the personality of its owner and creator, publisher Earl Janoth who wants to control time, specifically the time of his employees, who he works mercilessly. George Stroud (Ray Milland) is one of Janoth’s editors, the editor of Crimeways magazine, and he is hiding in the big clock. A flashback to the previous 36 hours tells us why. Ray Milland stars as overworked magazine editor George Stroud who quits his post after his boss, Earl Janoth insists he work on a new assignment instead of going on his long-delayed honeymoon. Milland goes day drinking where he meets up with Janoth’ mistress, Pauline (Rita Johnson) who promises Stroud dirt on Janoth. The two drink into the night and wind up back at her apartment with a painting and a sundial as souvenirs of their evening. Janoth shows up at Pauline’s apartment and during an argument in which she humiliates and emasculates Janoth, he beats her to death with the heavy sundial she acquired during the bar crawl. Janoth flees to the home of his editor in chief Steve Hagen (George Macready) and confesses the crime. They then hatch a plan to save Janoth’s skin and Milland is set up to be the patsy for the murder. Diabolically, Stroud is tasked to lead an investigation into finding the killer, a mystery man called “Jefferson Randolph” who is of course Stroud. He has to make a show of a legit investigation while trying to keep his identity a secret as to avoid being set up for the murder. As the investigation grinds on, a witness comes forward with the ability to unmask Milland and the entire office building is on lock down to allow the witness to identify Jefferson Randolph forcing Milland to keep himself from being identified without leaving the building leaving him to take refuge in the titular clock. Stroud eludes identification and capture and with the aid of some of the characters he met during his drunken escapades the night before, including Elsa Lanchester in a rambunctious turn as a loud mouthed artist Stroud confronts Janoth and Hagen and presents his case for Hagen being the killer in front of a police detective. Stroud has managed to turn the tables and frame Hagen for the crime. Janoth instead of leaping to his defense merely mumbles some platitudes about helping him hire a good lawyer. Enraged by the lack of loyalty Hagen outs Janoth as the killer. Janoth shoots him and then dies by falling down an elevator shaft that Stroud has disabled earlier to evade capture from Janoth’s thug, Bill (Harry Morgan). With the needs of plot and the Hayes Office satisfied, Stroud and his wife are finally free to take their honeymoon to West Virginia, but not before Elsa Lanchester is able to make a splash with a final bit of comic business.
Aside from the hybridization of the two styles of film The Big Clock also features a scarcely disguised homoerotic subtext swirling around Earl Janoth and his confidante and editor in chief Steve Hagen (George Macready) and also with Janoth’s psychotic henchman, Bill, played by Harry Morgan. Seeing a young Colonel Potter from M*A*SH* playing a frightening heavy is somewhat unnerving. Even the “biography” of Janoth that Pauline is peddling is quite obviously Janoth’s closeted homosexuality. How much of this subtext was meant to be picked up on 70 years ago is quite debatable, but in 2019 it borders on camp, especially Laughton’s performance. To be fair many of his performances bordered on camp, but in the peculiar environment of The Big Clock his outlandish, over-sized performance is precisely what is needed.
Arrow Academy delivers with a striking black and white transfer of the film punctuated with an impressive set of extras. Turning Back the Clock is a featurette doing analytical deep dive from Film London’s critic Adrian Wootton. Simon Callow provides a heartfelt examination of the post-Hunchback of Notre Dame career of actor Charles Laughton on A Difficult Actor. The 1940s was a period of his career where the great actor developed a reputation for hammy performances. Callow argues that while Laughton seemed to lose interest in film acting in this period, he considers The Big Clock to be a return to form and one of Laughton’s great performances. The disc also contains the 1948 radio play of The Big Clock by the Lux Radio Theatre, actually starring starring Ray Milland. Capping off the set is an audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin. Martin delivers a commentary that mixes historical information, plot construction, thematic elements, and technical notes that is fascinating and wonderfully entertaining.