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
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
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
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.
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
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
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:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 3, 2004
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.
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.
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.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson