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October 2010

The Big Clock

cast: Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan, George Macready, and Elsa Lanchester

director: John Farrow

95 minutes (U) 1948
Odeon DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
review by Ian Sales

The Big Clock

George Stroud (Ray Milland) is an important man at Janoth Publications: he runs 'Crimeways' magazines, which has proven especially successful at tracking down absconded criminals and so publishing scoops on them. But now he's being hunted through the Janoth Publications building by armed guards, all of whom have been instructed to shoot to kill... Thirty-six hours previously, things were very different. We know this because Stroud tells us so.

The plot of The Big Clock is a noir staple: man witnesses a murder by important person, and so the important person blames the crime on the witness. The twist here is that the murderer doesn't know the identity of the witness, and unknowingly sets that same person to find... um, himself.

For five years, Stroud has been unable to get away to take his delayed honeymoon, but now he has finally decided enough is enough. He tells boss Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) that this time he is definitely going, before his marriage fails. Janoth is having none of it: if Stroud goes on holiday, then he's fired. Stroud goes. He's then approached by Janoth's ex-mistress, Pauline York (Rita Johnson), who also desires revenge on Janoth.

The two go for a drink... which turns into many drinks. Stroud passes out in Johnson's apartment. She's expecting Janoth, so she wakes him. Stroud sneaks out the back, but not before seeing Janoth arrive. Janoth sees only a figure lurking in the shadows. Janoth and Johnson argue, he clouts her with a sundial (picked up Stroud during the earlier drunken bar-crawl), and kills her. He then tells his right-hand man, Steven Hagen (John Macready), to clean up the crime-scene and to put the blame on the man Janoth saw lurking in the shadows.

Stroud by this time is with his wife, Georgette (Maureen O'Sullivan), on their honeymoon. But when Janoth asks him to come back and head up the manhunt for York's murderer, he can't refuse. Because he knows that Janoth is the murderer and that he, himself, is the man Janoth wants to find. From that point, much of the film takes place in the Janoth Publications building, as Stroud's reporters head out to track York's last movements, and report back what they find to the Crimeways office. They also find a number of eye witnesses who could identify York's companion during the bar-crawl, all of which Stroud must avoid...

Eventually, Stroud finds evidence to prove that Janoth is the murderer. But Janoth promptly tries to blame Hagen. The villains of the piece, however, get their just desserts. The real star of The Big Clock is the Janoth Publications office-building, the lobby of which is dominated by the timepiece of the title. Janoth is, apparently, a man ruled by the clock, although this conceit only holds sway during the first half of the film. And the clock itself provides a hiding-place for Stroud during the opening duration, before the flashback begins.

The building itself is typically of the era, with a vast marbled lobby, wide hallways and modernist offices. It looks like something which could have been designed by Howard Roark. Janoth, too, could well be a Randian character - although hero or villain in her eyes is open to question. Stroud is an everyman, displaying no especial skill at anything. The success of Crimeways is put down to his method of drawing up behavioural profiles of the criminals the magazine is hunting, but it's not that he shows great insight or perceptiveness when doing so. His one talent appears to be his decisiveness; but then heroes were like that in those days - decisive everymen, who showed that even the impossible could be achieved through the application of willingness and willpower.

The Big Clock is something of a pot-boiler; but it's an entertaining one for all that. Perhaps there's a faint hint of Rand to the proceedings, but even that can't spoil it. It's tightly-plotted - as it must be for the central conceit to work - and played with gusto by its cast, especially Laughton as Janoth. The Big Clock has a happy ending, so it's plainly not noir, although it feels in places as though it wants to be. But then who wants the bad guys to win all the time?



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