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John Farrow’s “The Big Clock” (1948)

Charles Laughton and Ray Milland in the superb 1948 film noir, The Big Clock.

As Joseph D’Onofrio writes perceptively on the TCM website, “In The Big Clock, George Stroud, (Ray Milland) the editor of Crimeways magazine has been given the task of solving a murder before his own staff finds evidence that will point to him as the killer. As he races to find the real murderer, Milland discovers that his search has led him to his magazine’s corporate headquarters. Located in a massive tower within the cold confines of those headquarters, the big clock seems to dominate everything. Even when Milland hides in a room just behind the clock, it’s as if he’s trapped inside a box of time within other boxes, one onto the other. All of them enclosed in the labyrinthian corridors of the imposing, futuristic-looking Janoth building. Time is the real enemy in The Big Clock. Even the murder weapon, a sundial, reinforces this notion.

The Big Clock is directed by John Farrow in an elegantly understated style, described by Simon Callow in his book, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor, as ‘nearly’ noir. As Callow puts it, ‘The play of shadows is handled in a masterly way, while the plot with its inversions and convolutions, presents an image of nightmarish reversals.’ Callow also speculates that Charles Laughton, as Earl Janoth, the owner of a publishing empire, seemed to be intentionally ‘drawing attention to the robotic heartlessness of big business.’ Janoth’s right hand man, Steve Hagen, is superbly played by veteran heavy George Macready, while Harry Morgan, in a very early role, appears as Janoth’s bodyguard, Bill Womack, without saying one word in the film.

Just after World War Two, Americans were witnessing the building of corporate giants, and the complications that come from such growth and progress. As much as The Big Clock is an entertaining thriller, it also seems to be an attempt to come to grips with that loss of identity within the corporate milieu. Workers, now faced with more powerful corporate heads in the new streamlined workplace, could relate to Laughton’s cunning portrayal of what Callow called, ‘a Napoleon of print.’

Farrow’s camera follows Laughton closely. It captures his nervous tics and twitches as he rules his employees with a fierce adherence to the adage that time does, indeed, equal money. A perfect example of this occurs when Laughton gives an order to an underling: ‘There’s a bulb that’s been burning for several days in a closet on the fourth floor to no apparent purpose. Find out who’s responsible; dock his pay.’ As Callow puts it, ‘The performance is a technical tour-de-force of high-speed throwaway, comic and powerful at the same time. We know everything about what he (Janoth) is, and how he works – like a clock, as it happens, the image that dominates and unifies the whole film.’

But it was Ray Milland who received top billing in The Big Clock, a rather ironic turn of events considering that Laughton once helped Milland as a struggling young actor in a supporting role in Payment Deferred (1932). If anything was made of this Hollywood twist of fate, it doesn’t show in the final product. The two men work well together and Milland is, as always, the consummate professional. We feel his confusion and anxiety as a man who misses a train and has a fateful, soon-to-be disastrous meeting which leaves him a man on the run, desperate to clear himself of murder.

When Milland won the Oscar for his gritty portrayal of an alcoholic in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945), he began to take on less glamorous, more challenging roles. In movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954), for example, he comes full circle, playing a jaded sophisticate and man-about-town who plots his wife’s murder. The Big Clock came at a transitional point in Milland’s career, offering him a role that falls somewhere between the elegant leading man of his earlier period and the more cynical and corrupt characters he later essayed.”

See the trailer for the film, featuring on-screen narrator Art Gilmore, by clicking here.

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About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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