Charles Laughton and Ray Milland in The Big Clock (1948)


(director: John Farrow; screenwriters: Jonathan Latimer/from the novel by Kenneth Fearing; cinematographer: John F. Seitz; editor: Gene Ruggiero; music: Victor Young; cast: 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); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Richard Maibaum; Paramount; 1948)


Thrilling psychological film noir.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Farrow directs this thrilling psychological film noir with style, though it’s barely a work of noir in the full sense of that genre. It’s adapted from the leftist Kenneth Fearing’s novel and scripted by Jonathan Latimer. A much revised version of the Fearing novel was No Way Out (86) starring Kevin Costner. John Seitz’s quality cinematography is memorable as it captures the isolation of the hero, Milland, in distress and the cold environment he is trapped in. Furthermore Seitz’s close-ups of the villain fascinatingly zeroes in on the contorted facial expressions of the power-hungry magnate gone amok–enhancing Laughton’s brilliant performance.

George Stroud (Ray Milland) is an athletically built family man and an excellent crime journalist who works on Crimeways Magazine, one of many publications owned worldwide by the heavy-set megalomaniac Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), a Hearst-like tycoon figure. He is in the habit of twirling his mustache and acting like a tyrant with his employees and in particular getting under George’s skin. Crimeways’ gimmick, which is its most popular feature, is the magazine’s ability to track down criminals on police wanted lists by using George’s “clueboard,” a big bulletin board posting crime clues and the criminal’s personality from which the staff anticipate the criminal’s moves in order to nab him or her.

George’s longtime suffering wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan) is upset that the job is forming a rift in their marriage and the workaholic agrees to go on a long overdue vacation after five years so they can at last have their honeymoon. But when Earl insists he stay and do one more story to help in a circulation drive, George quits in anger and before meeting his wife at the train station stops in a bar to relax from all the tension. But while drinking he meets a gorgeous blonde, Pauline Delos (Rita Johnson), and misses his commuter train. Going with the flow of things, the upset George spends an innocent night in town with Pauline, never realizing that she’s Earl’s mistress. George is spotted by Earl leaving Pauline at her apartment after a night out on the town, and when he jealously confronts her they argue and he kills her with a sundial in a fit of rage.

In a state of panic, Earl confesses his foul deed to best friend and assistant, Steve Hagen (George Macready), and they devise a scheme to frame George.

When George arrives at the vacation spot and apologizes to Georgette and all seems to be forgiven, Earl calls and insists he return to the NYC office and find Pauline’s killer. George feels he has no choice but to return despite his wife telling him if he does the marriage is kaput. As the magazine staff do their thing and check the clues, George fearing the worst distracts them and attempts to find the murderer on his own.

The title refers to that opening scene of the giant clock in the magazine’s lobby, which synchronizes and operates the other clocks in Earl’ publishing empire. Using a flashback, the story is told of how George’s lapse in judgment led him to come up against a powerful maniac wanting to destroy him. In the conclusion, George seeks shelter in the assembly of the big clock from his boss, where he accidentally hits a mechanism that stops this symbol of corporate power (a phallic ornament indicating inflexibility, inhumanity and control). This accidental act touches at the heart of Earl’s egomania and leads to his downfall, which is caused by his sexual insecurity over his impotence and maybe his homosexuality. Adding a lighthearted touch to the dark story is Elsa Lanchester as Laughton’s talented but zany artist wife, who has a brood of children at home all with different fathers.