How did it come to this? Within 36 hours, George Stroud (Ray Milland), editor of the popular Crimeways magazine, finds himself trapped in the tower of an enormous clock located in a prominent part of the Janoth Publications building. In flashback, Stroud explains how a disagreement with his autocratic boss, Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), was the catalyst for the series of events that resulted in a cat-and-mouse game between George and building security.
Stroud—a former editor for a Wheeling, WV newspaper (described as The Wheeling Clarion though there is no such periodical in real-life) until his breaking of a “big story” attracted the attention of Janoth—has made plans to return to the Mountain State for a long-overdue honeymoon/fishing vacation with his wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan). Mr. Janoth, however, has other plans for his editor: he wants George to take charge of a another Crimeways scoop and won’t take “no” for an answer: if the answer is no, George is through at Janoth Publications and for all intents and purposes blackballed from the entire publishing industry.
An angry George resigns and decides to throw back a few (well, more than just a few) at several local watering holes and the female companion he’s chosen to help him drink all that liquor is in hindsight a poor selection: she’s Pauline York (Rita Johnson), Janoth’s mistress. Stroud is sleeping off his bender at Pauline’s apartment when Janoth makes a surprise visit and she manages to get him out of the place before Earl catches the two of them. Unfortunately, Janoth saw a figure leaving in the corridor (though he doesn’t know it’s George) and after exchanging harsh words with Pauline about her “catting around,” he kills her in a fit of anger with a sundial she and George acquired during their pub crawl.
Janoth confides in his loyal number-two man, Steve Hagen (George Macready), of his complicity in Pauline’s murder and the two of them devise a plan to pin the crime on a mystery man, “Jefferson Randolph.” George is pulled back into the matter after Janoth tells him about “Randolph” and Pauline; Stroud assumes command at his old Crimeways post and puts his staff through their paces, conducting a thorough investigation to locate the enigmatic stranger. It’s only after George learns of Pauline’s death does he realize he’s ensnared in a web from which he may not be able to extricate himself.
Author-poet Kenneth Fearing published his fourth novel, The Big Clock, in 1946—inspired by both a sensationalistic murder of a New York brewery heiress in 1943 and a novel written by future cult director Sam Fuller, The Dark Page, in 1944. (The Dark Page was adapted to the silver screen in 1952 as Scandal Sheet, which shares many similarities with Clock [both involve murder investigations conducted by the press].) Fearing had also worked for Time magazine for a time (due to financial obligations) and loathed publisher Henry Luce so much he modeled the fictional Janoth after him. (Interestingly, no one at Time ever caught on—the magazine even gave rave reviews to both Fearing’s book and the film.)
Charles Laughton is perfectly cast as Janoth, a man equally compelling and repugnant. It’s not hard to suss out how Earl achieved success in the publication game; he’s uncompromisingly ruthless, and demonstrates this in a beaut of a throwaway scene where he instructs head lackey Hagen to dock a custodian’s pay because a light bulb was left burning in a broom closet for four days. You can’t do better for a villain than Charlie, and George Macready perfectly complements him as his cold-blooded assistant (there’s an intriguing gay subtext between the two of them, just as there’s an obvious homoerotic connection between Janoth and his silent henchman Womack, played by future M*A*S*H regular Harry Morgan).
The Big Clock was Old Home Week for Laughton and co-stars Ray Milland and Maureen O’Sullivan; the trio appeared in a movie that makes the rounds on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ from time to time, 1932’s Payment Deferred. Milland turns in his usual solid work as the in-peril Stroud, and I’ve always thought it interesting that the trailer for The Big Clock makes a connection between Milland and the radio program Suspense (even though Ray wouldn’t have his first official turn on the show until a few months after Clock’s release) because Clock’s plot is not unlike a broadcast from “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills.” (Suspense’s producer, Anton M. Leader, also appears alongside Milland in that trailer.)
O’Sullivan had been on hiatus from moviemaking since 1942’s Tarzan’s New York Adventure, and even though she did The Big Clock as a favor to her husband (John Farrow, the film’s director), Paramount insisted on a screen test. If anything, Clock is an engaging exercise in Hollywood nepotism: Charles Laughton’s better half, Elsa Lanchester, also appears in Clock and walks off with the movie as eccentric artist Louise Patterson, a witness who can identify Milland’s Stroud as the man with Pauline the night she was croaked. The scene where Patterson realizes that Janoth employee Don Klausmeyer (Harold Vemilyea) is the same guy who reviewed a gallery show of hers (and panned it) never fails to break me up. (“I’ve been wanting to kill you for years!”)
I’m a big fan of this offbeat noir, which mixes its Suspense-like elements with a kind of loopy Thin Man vibe (there’s a lot of surprising humor in the film), and every time I see the movie, I walk away with something new. I couldn’t help but detect a subtle left-wing message (more Fearing than scriptwriter Jonathan Latimer, I suspect) of how George Stroud’s being trapped in the Janoth building can only alleviated by the destruction of the “big clock,” foreshadowing his break with the strangulation Janoth’s capitalism has on him (it’s hinted he’ll be far happier returning to West Virginia). The movie got an official DVD release in 2004 but this May 14th, Arrow Academy (“the Criterion of cult”) will be releasing the film on a nice high-definition Blu-ray (1080p), transferred from the original elements.
Included on the Arrow Academy Blu-ray is a wonderful featurette, Turning Back the Clock, hosted by Film London’s Adrian Wootton, and actor-writer-director Simon Callow discusses Charles Laughton’s performance in Clock in A Difficult Actor. There’s audio commentary from scholar Adrian Martin, a stills gallery, the theatrical trailer, and another OTR connection in the November 22, 1948 broadcast of The Lux Radio Theatre, with Milland and O’Sullivan reprising their Clock roles. (Milland and O’Sullivan also encored their film turns when Screen Directors’ Playhouse featured “The Big Clock” on its July 8, 1949 broadcast…but that’s sold separately.) Many thanks to Friend of the Blog Clint Weiler at MVD Entertainment Group for pointing a screener in the direction of Rancho Yesteryear.