In director John Farrow’s The Big Clock we know that Milland may find himself in trouble again because of lady liquor after he is fired from his job and confides that the first thing he is going to do is “have a good stiff couple of drinks.” In this film he ties one on with the wrong woman, in the wrong place and as the title may allude, at the wrong time. The fatal result is a murder committed in the heat of passion.
What follows is an unconventional cat and mouse story that pits Milland and Charles Laughton against each other and the stakes are a reserved seat at the state penitentiary’s electric chair. Using a phony murder suspect as the bait to get the drop on one another, Farrow, Laughton and Milland deliver the suspense goods in spades. As the seconds tick away and the tension is ratcheted up, the film’s big question is which character will walk away with their life, and which will take the long walk to the chair.
Ray Milland’s character George Stroud is the lead editor of Janoth Publication’s most popular weekly periodical titled Crimeways. This magazine is renowned, as Milland dubs it, for being “the country’s police blotter.” The magazine’s success is due largely to George Stroud’s uncanny knack for finding criminals who don’t want to be found. This method Stroud innovates is called the “System of Irrelevant Clues” where the suspect of the investigation du-jour is essentially profiled as to their likes, dislikes, proclivities and other tendencies that could aid in their apprehension (as the moniker suggests, apparently the Police believe these same clues are irrelevant!?) This is indeed a handy skill for a criminal investigative journalist and Stroud has parlayed it into a very successful career.
His success however comes with a steep price and the tag reads: marriage on the rocks. Due to his numerous hours spent at the Crimeways office, Stroud is rarely available for his wife and five year old son. Georgette Stroud (Maureen O'Sullivan) later tells her husband that she thinks that he married the magazine instead of her.
Of course, George Stroud’s marital discord is of no concern to Charles Laughton’s character of media giant Earl Janoth, a man whose only concerns seem to be making money, having his employees under his thumb and his obsession with clocks and punctuality. His mistress Pauline York (played by Rita Johnson) is on very shaky terms with Janoth and we glean that she is using him for his money. In return she is a nice bit of eye candy he can dangle on his arm. Laughton is fantastic as the automaton mogul, who is equally concerned with how to increase readership by the tens of thousands and micromanage his business by ruthlessly pinching pennies. This is hilariously demonstrated when Janoth tells his assistant that, “On the fourth floor, in a broom closet, the bulb has been burning for several days. Find the man responsible and dock his pay.”
George Stroud is fed up with his family taking a back seat to the magazine and Laughton. He is determined to finally take a long overdue vacation with his wife and son. Janoth has other ideas for Stroud and gives him an ultimatum; either he stays and helps with a big story he just broke, or is fired and blackballed by Janoth. Stroud has reached his limit and chooses the latter. Before he goes to the train station to meet his wife and son for their belated honeymoon/vacation he decides to celebrate his new found freedom by enjoying cocktails with Pauline, his now ex-employer’s mistress.
Her invitation for drinks is under the pretense of pooling their collective dirt on Janoth for some payback. Several dozen Stingers later, the evening has degenerated into quite a drinking binge. George misses his train and he wakes up in Pauline’s apartment on the couch later in the evening after passing out (no husband of the year award for him!). With a hearty hangover he’s quickly pushed out the door by Pauline as she sees Janoth on his way up to her apartment for an unexpected visit. George goes down the building’s stairway but not before Janoth steps off the elevator and notices someone (Milland) leaving her apartment. Earl Janoth questions Pauline as to the identity of the person leaving her apartment and she makes up a phony name of “Jefferson Randolph.”
Janoth keeps pressing her, and still tipsy, she levels some very scathing words at him. Her words inflame him and in the heat of the moment, he brains her upside the head with a sundial paperweight and kills her. Janoth flees the scene and soon after confides the murder to his loyal lead crony Steve Hagen (George Macready). Hagen takes charge and decides to go back to the scene of the crime. He eliminates Pauline’s apartment of any clues his boss left and begins laying the groundwork to frame this mysterious Jefferson Randolph for the murder (who, of course, is George Stroud.)
Janoth calls Stroud on his vacation the next day and tells him he needs his skills and the Crimeways reporters to track down this Jefferson Randolph, seen leaving Pauline’s apartment the night of her murder as he is a chief suspect. George knows that this is person is in fact himself. He must return to New York to obscure the trail to the fictional Randolph as it will definitely lead him into a world of trouble with the authorities--and his wife.
This implausible scenario sets up the movie’s real goods which consist of an unconventional cat-and-mouse game where the lines between prey and predator are crossed and re-crossed by Laughton and Milland. Stroud is using his profiling technique of tracking down people to theoretically track down himself. Not only does he have to foil this process and thwart his magazines staff employing it, he also must appear to be helping this process when in reality he is trying to stay one step ahead of everyone, especially Janoth.
His bender with Pauline has left behind a long trail of clues and witnesses that saw them together during her final evening. In particular Elsa Lanchester (Charles Laughton’s real life spouse) gives a great performance as a daffy artist who is one of these witnesses that Milland must keep away from Laughton and the Crimeways investigative team. As the noose tightens around George Stroud, Janoth and Hagen begin to piece together that the mysterious Jefferson Randolph is Stroud. Stroud knows that Janoth must have been the one to kill Pauline but he can’t point the finger just yet as the clues still point to him.
The plot (which I have whittled down, believe it or not) is fairly intricate and has some nice twists throughout the film to keep it interesting. Screenwriter Jonathan Latimer (The Glass Key, Nocturne, among others) also punches up the script with some crisp and clever dialogue keeping the film feeling brisk and not bogged down by the complex plot. Milland’s performance is great as he runs the spectrum of behavior from a sort of affable cockiness in the beginning, to severe anxiety as the suspense builds. Charles Laughton is simply amazing as always. His Janoth character is a detestable autocrat, yet his rakish behavior coupled with a vermouth dry sense of humor manages to make him the core delight of the film.
The most impressive visual aspect of the film is by far the camerawork. The camera moves about the characters and their surroundings with flair and grace, but does so without making the viewer too conscious of its presence. Upon our introduction to Charles Laughton’s character, the camera follows him around his executive boardroom table where he slowly encircles his seated sycophantic executives pitching ideas to him on how to increase readership. As he dismisses their ideas one-by-one, he sits down at the head of the enormous table only to soon after get up and leave the meeting.
Through Farrow’s tracking shot of Laughton, we follow his every move in this scene as if the camera was mimicking the eyes of his underlings, examining the every move of their exacting executive. Farrow’s selection of shots are stylish and keep the viewer visually engaged, however, he ultimately respects the potency of the script and the cast’s ability to deliver its dramatic goods. Because of these strengths, the director is able to interject visual verve to the film through his tasty camerawork, yet it never feels like a crutch or a distraction.
The Big Clock is a taut, lean little thriller which has the right mix of suspense, humor, action and plot twists designed to keep your eyes on the screen. Much more enjoyable upon second viewing as I appreciated the screenplay’s cleverness.
The Big Clock Tidbits:
Harry (Henry) Morgan plays Laughton’s muscle in the film but never utters a line...
It was nominated for an Edgar Allen Poe award for Best Motion Picture in 1949...
The film was remade in 1987 and re-titled No Way Out. It starred Kevin Costner, Sean Young and Gene Hackman as the heavy. I have no idea if the remake was any good as I refuse to lose any more time in my life watching Costner “act.”