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DVD SAVANT

The Big Clock


The Big Clock

1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 95 min. / Street Date July 6, 2004 / 14.98
Starring Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan, George Macready, Rita Johnson, Elsa Lanchester, Harry (Henry) Morgan
Cinematography Daniel L. Fapp, John Seitz
Art Direction Roland Anderson, Hans Dreier, Albert Nozaki
Film Editor LeRoy Stone
Original Music Victor Young
Written by Jonathan Latimer from a novel by Kenneth Fearing
Produced by John Farrow, Richard Maibaum
Directed by John Farrow

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Big Clock is officially une film noir but crosses over into light comedy so frequently that it can't be classified anywhere near the mainstream. The extremely clever script creates an exciting world inside a publishing company so modern it was probably considered futuristic in 1948. At the center of the plots and schemes is the deviously brilliant Charles Laughton, and Ray Milland is excellent as the executive who has to out-wit a frame-up from within and without at the same time. As the search for a killer slowly zeroes in on Milland, we get a taste of future paranoia in the corporate world, as well as a thrilling and hilarious puzzle picture.

Synopsis:

By systematically setting his investigators onto clues the police overlook, editor George Stroud (Ray Milland) has made Crimeways the most successful magazine in the publishing empire run by the tyrannical Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton). But now he's in a real jam - he was the last person to see mystery woman Pauline York (Rita Johnson) alive, and he left plenty of clues behind him. And Janoth and his ax-man executive assistant Steve Hagen (George Macready) want Stroud to find the killer!

The Big Clock is so complicated that I still have unanswered questions about minor plot details, and I've seen the picture four or five times. It's great entertainment in general terms, as we watch the characters make their desperate little moves. We know what is going on more than any of them but it's impossible to guess how George Stroud will escape the law, or his employer's hired killers.

First and foremost is Charles Laughton's turn as Janoth, a twisted business despot who lets his personal obsessions dominate every aspect of his employees' lives. He personally micromanages his company down to the light bulbs in a broom closet (for which a janitor loses his job) while letting the gigantic mechanical clock in his office lobby serve as a symbol of his tyranny. Tardiness is inexcusable, and the sudden interruption of the Big Clock sends some of his minions into an Alphaville-like tizzy.  1

The story kicks into gear when George Stroud quits over Janoth's attempt to force him to skip a delayed, family-essential vacation and keep working during an artificially induced company crisis. It's the dilemma of every working person today who is asked to sacrifice just because some supervisor needs to prove their potency. Stroud's quitting puts him way ahead of Billy Wilder's C.C. Baxter in The Apartment, but it tangles him with another disgruntled Janoth employee, the boss's mistress. What happens in her apartment puts Stroud's job, his marriage and his life in jeopardy. 2

The idea of a man assigned to track himself down is given very progressive twists. George watches helplessly while his clever operatives slowly single him out, their training defeating his attempts to throw them off the scent. His mobility is restricted when eyewitnesses who could immediately identify him are brought to the Janoth building.

Clues are worked out in clever detail. The murder weapon is a kind of clock. The color green finds its way from a ribbon to a stain on a handkerchief. Like a prototype James Bond, Stroud must work undercover - but in plain sight - in a futuristic company where everyone's movements can be monitored and armed police have been told to shoot on sight. Stroud throws a monkey wrench into Janoth's clockwork, first by interrupting the Big Clock and then by sabotaging an elevator with a method James Bond would use 21 years later. 3

But the script also makes the film dependent on many amusing acting bits that are filled in beautifully by Paramount contract players. Richard Webb (TV's Captain Midnight) is one of Stroud's investigators, along with the ubiquitous Douglas Spencer (The Thing from Another World). Margaret Field (The Man from Planet X) is a secretary and Noel Neill (Invasion, U.S.A.) the elevator girl constantly being propositioned by a C.C. Baxter-like clerk. Supposedly hidden in the huge staff at Janoth Publications are Ruth Roman and Diane Stewart. Relatively diminutive Harry Morgan plays against type as Janoth's dangerously sullen bodyguard, an updating of The Maltese Falcon's henchman Wilmer.

The executive henchman George Macready is willing to do anthing, legal or ill-, to support his all powerful boss. Rita Johnson has the true thankless role as the mystery woman, George Stroud's drinking partner. Elsa Lanchester (Laughton's real-life missus) is delightfully funny as a weird Greenwich Village artist whose studio overflows with unsold art and fatherless children. She's a dotty marvel, trying to remember what became of her various husbands. Her machinations in the Janoth offices become crucial when we find out that she'd rather get paid than finger Stroud - she's one of the few who can link him to the murder.

Maureen O'Sullivan (the director's wife) would have the thankless role as the pouting wife if it weren't for her sterling assist in the last reel or two. Tarzan's ex-Jane also takes a front role as one of the few confederates Stroud can count on. Mistaken identity adds to the fun when Stroud enlists an actor friend from his favorite bar to help him nail the real killer; by the time the fast-paced picture is racing to the climax, the story complications have reached the level of farce. Yet things are kept just serious enough for us to feel George Stroud's fearful isolation.

The Big Clock is light entertainment, but that big Metropolis-like clock and Earl Janoth's arrogant power over his employees reads like the future of American working life seen in a crystal ball. The film scores as a film noir, yet most people will react to it as a solid comedy thriller.

The film was remade (sort of) by Roger Donaldson in 1989 as No Way Out.


Universal's DVD of The Big Clock shows the problem with their library of pre- 1948 Paramount pictures purchased in 1958: Bad elements. I've been told that dupe negatives were made in the early 50s so that dangerous original nitrate elements could be discarded. Not only were the dupes not done carefully, flaws in the negs (like some missing footage in Horse Feathers) were simply duplicated. I've been told that The Big Clock and Night Has 1,000 Eyes were in pretty bad shape with no vaulted elements to back them up; it's not fun to think that all those pristine nitrate prints we saw at UCLA (of, for instance, Josef Sternberg films) can't be seen anew.

The Big Clock looks to has been given a thorough digital going-over to help correct density problems, and the result is an acceptable and sharp image that doesn't look quite right - it's a bit dull, and many shots have a slightly "off" look, almost as if the film were a high-quality kinescope (film shot from a video monitor in the days of live television).

Still, it looks very good and the entertainment power of the film is such that you'll hardly notice. There is a trailer (with a radio-show opening) but no other extras. Warners is routinely putting some sort of commentary on library DVDs now, and Fox is starting to do the same (I've heard they are moving on an attractive selection of their own noir pictures) so it's time that Columbia, Paramount and Universal get with the idea - people want extras, even minimal extras.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Big Clock rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 3, 2004


Footnotes:

1. Janoth's Big Clock is mechanically synchronized with every timepiece in his building, the way electronically monitored clocks are now, a very futuristic touch.
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2. The Big Clock has so many coincidental harmonies with The Apartment that it's tempting to think that Billy Wilder admired the Jonathan Latimer screenplay and reworked it as a bittersweet/cynical romance. In both cases the setting is a modern high rise office that's a world unto its own. Lowly clerks and executives are shuttled around at the mercy of the top man. Both our employee hero and his boss are involved with the same girl, the boss's mistress. A death/near death occurs in her apartment/love nest. The employee tries to hide the death/near death. Other company employees visit the apartment, complicating the situation. The apartment building's staff get the complete wrong idea about the hero, thinking him a killer/womanizer. One of the central scenes in both pictures is a drunken binge in a bar with a woman who probably wants to seduce the hero. The big boss uses an underling to cover up his own indiscretions. There's a speech where the mistress complains about the fact that she's only one in a long line of the executive's conquests among the staffers - secretaries, models, elevator operators. Like I say, there are a lot of interesting coincidences in the two movies.
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3. Stroud immobilizes the executive elevator (which seems to have its counterpart in The Apartment's executive washroom) by sticking something into a side gap in the elevator door, the same way George Lazenby's 007 outwits electronic doors in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Incidentally, the producer of The Big Clock is Richard Maibaum, the formative writer behind the 007 franchise.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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