Noirvember Feature #6 – The Big Clock (1948)

TheBigClockThe Big Clock (1948)
Directed by: John Farrow
Written by: Jonathan Latimer (based on The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing)
Starring: Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, Rita Johnson

This month’s selections just keeps getting better and better…

Director John Farrow (father of the highly-acclaimed actress Mia Farrow) was incredibly prolific as both a writer and director for nearly three decades.  It wasn’t until 1948’s The Big Clock that he truly struck a long-lasting chord with critics and audiences, and even after its release he would fail to live up to the film.  Farrow was nominated for Best Director for 1942’s Wake Island and even won an Oscar for writing 1956’s Around the World in Eighty Days, but those films haven’t endured the test of time like his famous film noir has.  The Big Clock stars Ray Milland, who just three years prior had given what I would consider to be one of the all-time great performances in The Lost Weekend, and the legendary Charles Laughton, whose acclaimed roles are far too plenty to list here.  Maureen O’Sullivan, the wife of director John Farrow and mother of Mia Farrow, also stars.  O’Sullivan was widely known at the time for playing Jane in the Tarzan series of films.  Her role in the film came after a prolonged absence from the screen, and was met with critical praise, but she soon after opted to retire from the screen permanently.  The Big Clock is based on a famous novel of the same name, written by Kenneth Fearing, and has been adapted for the screen a number of time since its publication.


Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) and George Stroud (Ray Milland) in the beginning of 1948’s The Big Clock.

The story of The Big Clock sees our main character, magazine editor George Stroud (played by Oscar-winning Ray Milland), being fired at the outset.  Stroud is eager to take a vacation with his wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan), but plans his slowly become unravelled after gaining the attention of the beautiful Pauline York (Rita Johnson).  Pauline is the mistress of George’s former boss Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), which is partly why she shows so much interest in the down-on-his-luck George.  The two hit it off and devise a plan to blackmail the media mogul Janoth. Soon after George leaves her apartment to reunite with his wife, Pauline is quickly murdered after a passionate spat with her lover.  Little do the two men know that they quite literally bumped into each other in the hallway of Pauline’s apartment building, both men’s faces shrouded in darkness.  Janoth now looks for the man in the hallway so that he can pin his crime of passion on the mystery man, and unwittingly hires George back in order to track down the mystery man.  Now George must both lead the investigation and manhunt for the “murderer”, and cover up the fact that he’s the man the media is so desperately searching for.  Will Pauline York’s true killer be caught and brought to justice, or will the wrong man pay for a crime he didn’t commit?  You’ll have to watch John Farrow’s excellent The Big Clock to find out for yourself!

The Big Clock is as twisty-turny as film noir gets, and in this case it definitely works to its benefit.  The film keeps the audience on its feet and keeps you guessing whether Stroud or Janoth are going to get caught, and how they’re going to be able to get themselves out of the situation.  The scenes in the first act of the film involving George Stroud and his wife Georgette are quite funny and relatable, and set a very good pace for what was to follow.  Ray Milland and Maureen O’Sullivan had terrific chemistry together as the Stroud’s, and when Georgette decided to tag along with her husband I was overjoyed.  The may not be the most effective team due to some awkward gender roles of the time, but I still had a lot of fun watching the couple on-screen.  Charles Laughton’s performance as Earl Janoth is diabolical and hammy in the best way possible, and it’s obvious why Laughton is so highly regarded as an actor.  He seems to play a villainous character with ease, being both incredibly intimidating and slimy all at the same time.  His scenes with Milland’s George Stroud are tense, and the way he commands the screen just begs the attention of the viewer.  Director John Farrow also deserves a great deal of praise, commanding evocative performances from the entire (albeit talented) leading cast, and also for a variety of taught directing techniques.  A long single take shot towards the beginning of the film sets the tone for things to come, and is expertly handled by the veteran director. Reveals of the many twists and turns in the film’s script are handled with subtlety, making the audience piece together some of the clues and do some thinking instead of spoon-feeding them answers.  

Annex - Laughton, Charles (Big Clock, The)_02

In short, The Big Clock is a tight, tense, atmospheric film noir that will keep you on your toes.  The performances from an all-star cast are terrific, the writing respects its source material and doesn’t insult its audience, and John Farrow’s direction is somehow both subtle and stylish.  All of these elements combined lead to The Big Clock being regarded as one of my favorite films of this month’s marathon, and I now feel compelled to seek out similar stories, as well as more work from director John Farrow.  The Big Clock is highly recommended!

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