When powerful publishing tycoon Earl Janouth commits an act of murder at the height of passion, he cleverly begins to cover his tracks and frame an innocent man, whose identity he doesn't know, but who just happen to have contact with the murder victim. That man is a close associate on his magazine whom he enlists to trap this "killer" George Stroud. It's up to George to continue to "help" Janouth, to elude the police and to find proof of his innocence and Janouth's guilt.
Ray Milland ... George Stroud
Charles Laughton ... Earl Janoth
Maureen O'Sullivan ... Georgette Stroud
George Macready ... Steve Hagen
Rita Johnson ... Pauline York
Elsa Lanchester ... Louise Patterson
Harold Vermilyea ... Don Klausmeyer
Dan Tobin ... Ray Cordette
Harry Morgan ... Bill Womack (as Henry Morgan)
Richard Webb ... Nat Sperling
Elaine Riley ... Lily Gold
Luis Van Rooten ... Edwin Orlin
Lloyd Corrigan ... McKinley
Frank Orth ... Burt
Margaret Field ... Second Secretary
When reviewing films like The Big Clock the usual temptation for reviewers is to say it's all right, but Alfred Hitchcock could have done it better. I'm prone to that comment myself.
But I can't see how Hitchcock could have done it better in this case. The plot is complicated, but not so that you get bogged down. It defies encapsulation, but briefly Charles Laughton, a Rupert Murdoch like publisher back in the day kills his mistress Rita Johnson. Earlier that day Johnson had picked up Ray Milland who is the editor of one of Laughton's publications Crimeways magazine and had a night on the town with him.
Laughton sees someone leaving Johnson's apartment, it's Milland, but Laughton only glimpses and can't identify him before killing Johnson. With the help of his right hand man George MacReady, Laughton tries to find the stranger to pin the murder on him and enlists Milland to do it. Milland realizes what the game is and it's quite a duel of wits between two very intelligent people.
Milland, though directed by John Farrow here, is a typical Hitchcock hero trapped by circumstances and desperately looking for a solution. It's possible that Hitchcock saw this film and had Milland in mind for one his films and he did eventually use him in Dial M for Murder.
Laughton covers some familiar ground here. He's a powerful man with a fetish for punctuality. The title of the film refers to The Big Clock in the lobby of his skyscraper in New York. It runs on naval observatory time and is also running in tandem with all the clocks in all the buildings that Janoth publications has in the country. In fact it's Johnson's lateness that sets him off in their confrontation. And Milland throws him off his game by stopping The Big Clock in the lobby.
The closest role that Laughton played to Earl Janoth here has to be Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. Both are complete anal retentives, with Javert it's the law, with Janoth its time. Javert has no personal life, Janoth apparently can't handle one. And with both only an actor of great talent and skill like Charles Laughton can make you be repelled by his actions and still feel some sympathy for him.
The Big Clock holds up very well today and I wish it would be remade and could be. It was with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman in No Way Out with the setting now the Pentagon. I'd like to see it updated and keep it in a civilian setting. Though I doubt it would be as good as the Laughton/Milland version.
This is one of my all-time favorite films, and while so many of my own thoughts have already been expressed by so many others, there is one other point worth adding. This movie is one of those rare cases in which the film is better than the novel. I know; I've read it.
The novel, by Kenneth Fearing, takes a rather odd approach -- it's told in first-person form, from the viewpoint of several characters, shifting POV throughout. I wouldn't take it to task for that: It might be unusual, but it's certainly an interesting idea.
But there are several elements that just don't work. For instance, the hero, in the book, is a former barkeeper from upstate New York. How on earth he could become a top editor at a national magazine is left unexplained. The movie's explanation -- that he is a former newspaper reporter from a smalltown paper in -- if I remember correctly -- West Virginia -- is certainly more plausible. The magazine setting, as portrayed in the book, is entirely unconvincing.
The book bogs when it means to twist. Plot points hang on implausibilities. And the conclusion is certainly quite a bit different, and less dramatic. I guess this ought to be considered a spoiler, so be warned:
*SPOILER ALERT* In the book's finale, the hero learns third-hand that Earl Janoth, the Laughton character, has committed suicide, plunging from the top of his beloved skyscraper. We -- the readers -- don't even get to see it happen. *END SPOILER ALERT*
The movie's script tosses out most of the extraneous elements and boils the story down to Kenneth Fearing's astonishingly original concept. A man is trapped in a building. A manhunt is taking place, for a person unknown, in an attempt to frame that person for murder. The hero knows that the manhunt will eventually lead to him. He takes charge of it, and attempts to divert its course.
These elements were present in the original novel, and the screenwriters took them and polished them to the point where we have a movie in which not a line of dialogue is wasted, and every word and every scene propels us toward the conclusion. We can feel Ray Milland's rising sense of tension as the net closes in. And if you watch the composition of the shots -- something I suppose comes easy for me, after watching this masterpiece a half-dozen times -- you can see that even the photography was carefully managed to give us a sense of Ray Milland's claustrophobia and fear.
The only off-putting note comes at the end -- a bit of comic relief from Elsa Lanchester. But hey, in any movie, you can overlook ONE thing. The eighties remake "No Way Out" does not in any way approach the achievement of this film, but it's interesting to note that one element we find in the eighties version was present, in oblique form, in the book -- the intimation of homosexuality. (Naturally it doesn't appear in the forties version.) In its own way, the eighties film also takes an element of Fearing's story, and runs with it.
Anyway, I can only think of a few examples in which a movie is superior to the book on which it was based -- "In a Lonely Place" comes to mind, and perhaps the more recent films "Fight Club" and "Election." "The Big Clock" is another one of those rare cases in which Hollywood took a flawed property and turned it into something great.
This is not, in my opinion, one of the great noirs, but it tells a fast-paced, well-acted story with style, tension and humor. Ray Milland plays George Stroud, dynamic editor of a crime magazine, one of many in Earl Janoth's (Charles Laughton) publishing empire. Through circumstances, he meets Laughton's mistress one evening. She later is killed. Janoth puts Stroud in charge of tracking down the murder to get an exclusive for the magazine...(not much of a spoiler ahead; the killing is shown early)...and to cover the fact that Janoth was the killer. Milland is quickly set up to take the fall.
Milland was edging into middle age and this added to the authority he brought to the role. Although he still had the charm and light comedy springingness, he is believable as a quick-thinking potential victim.
Laughton is first rate. In a couple of scenes he scurries to the elevator or across a hall and looks like a fat, dangerous spider. He helps define Janoth's character as an indulgent, morally corrupt egoist by touching his mouth and grooming a small, ridiculous moustache with a little finger.
Rita Johnson plays the mistress and is terrific. She's shrewd, sexy and sophisticated. She didn't have much of a career and, according to IMDb, apparently had a death worthy of a noir movie.
George Macready plays a smart, cold, condescending lawyer whose ethics are flexible. His range may have been be limited, but Macready was one of Hollywood's great character actors.
You might be able to find an old, used paperback of the book by Kenneth Fearing. He was a good poet who never made it. In the three or four mystery/novels he wrote he uses the device of having the characters speak for themselves in the first person, each to his or her own chapter. It takes getting used to but it becomes quite effective. Dagger of the Mind and The Loneliest Girl in the World also are very good and also, I suppose, long out of print. If you like mysteries (or dead American poets), give him a Google.
Kevin Costner's No Way Out was based on the book and this movie. In the ring, I'd give Milland over Costner on points by a wide margin; Laughton over Hackman on points but close; Macready over Patton by a knockout in the sixth; and Johnson over Sean Young by a knockout in the first. And this version over the other by a knockout in the fifth. No Way Out's conclusion is, for me, unsatisfying because it drains sympathy from the Costner hero. In The Big Clock, the ending is satisfyingly concluded with an elevator shaft and, later, a hug and a laugh.
# "She's My Baby" is the English version of "Cosi Celeste"
# When producer Richard Maibaum first came on the set, director John Farrow who liked to intimidate people who worked with him, kept him at a distance by using a walking stick. Maibaum turned around, went to the props department and returned with a baseball bat. As if a spell were broken, the situation immediately improved and Maibaum and Farrow would go on to have an excellent working relationship.
# During the making of the film, co-stars Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton were married, as were star 'Maureen O'Sullivan' and director John Farrow.