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A little film noir, a little comedy moves “The Big Clock”

Updated: Apr 14, 2021


Natural film grain dominated this scene and many others, as Ray Milland plays Crimeways editor-reporter George Stroud, who heads up an investigation to find the person who killed the mistress of publisher and taskmaster Earl Janoth played by Charles Laughton.

Frame shots courtesy of Arrow Academy


Blu-ray and DVD; 1948; Not Rated

Best extra: “A Difficult Actor” interview with Charles Laughton biographer Simon Callow

WHAT IS most surprising about “The Big Clock” is that, even for film buffs, this Arrow Academy Blu-ray may be their first experience of this 1948 gem. And what a treat it will be.

Directed by John Farrow and adapted by Jonathan Latimer from the novel by Kenneth Fearing, the film is a unique blend of thriller, film noir, and screwball comedy. Starring Ray Milland, Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Sullivan (Farrow's wife), with cameos by Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester, and Harry Morgan (who later shone in M*A*S*H on TV), “The Big Clock” is thoroughly entertaining and gorgeous to behold.

Set mostly in a New York City skyscraper, where the offices of Janoth Publications thrive, it’s the story of George Stroud (Milland), whose voice we hear narrating a tense opening scene. He seems to be inside the workings of the building’s enormous clock, frantically trying to evade pursuers, when he introduces the flashbacks that make up the rest of the movie.

The flashback opens with George Stroud hiding in the big clock room.

Publisher Earl Janoth expects bigger profits from his Janoth Publications during a meeting with his editors.

Earl tells George he can't go on vacation.

Upper left, George meets Janoth's mistress, Pauline York (Rita Johnson) at a bar; George and his wife, Georgette (Maureen O'Sullivan) toast their upcoming honeymoon that's been delayed for years; George tells Janoth he's quitting; George buys a painting in an antique shop, while the artist (Elsa Lanchester) observes.

George is a reporter for Crimeways, one of the Janoth publishing empire’s many magazines, all of which are owned by fearsome taskmaster Earl Janoth (Laughton). When Janoth refuses to let George go on a much-needed and promised vacation (and overdue honeymoon) with his wife Georgette (O’Sullivan) and their son, George quits.

Drowning his sorrows at a bar, George meets the glamorous Pauline York (Rita Johnson), who also happens to be Janoth’s unhappy mistress. George and Pauline, both tipsy, engage in a flirtation, which eventually leads to her apartment. Before anything adulterous can happen, Earl shows up. George sneaks out and hides near the apartment door while, inside, Earl and Pauline quarrel violently. The quarrel ends when Earl strikes and kills her with a sundial she and George bought together. Get that? George sees Earl, who is looking panicked before he gets onto the elevator and leaves. Before long, Earl hires George back and assigns him the job of finding the man who had been in Pauline’s apartment that evening.

Naturally, that man is himself, so George is in quite the pickle. And yes, there are moments of comedy in this dark story, many of them coming from Lanchester, who plays a ditzy painter whose pictures become important plot points. All in all, “The Big Clock” deserves to be added to the roster of 1940s classics.

The 1080p transfer from a master made by Universal Studios is not perfect. It has some issues with grain and contrast, but the cinematography by John F. Seitz is so stunning (1.38:1 aspect ratio), and the production design so stylish, you probably won’t care that much. For the most part, the blacks are lush and velvety, details are sharp in close-ups, and visual effects work perfectly. The LPCM Mono track is fine, with intelligent dialogue always clear and the score by Victor Young adding just the right background.

George spots Earl going into Pauline's apartment.

Upper left, Pauline and Earl quarrel; Earl realizes he's killed her; Earl asks Steve Hagen (George Macready), his right hand man, to help him; Steve goes to Pauline's apartment, and removes evidence that could incriminate Earl.


All of the bonus features are terrific, and more than worth viewers’ time. They include a very informative commentary by Australian critic Adrian Martin; “Turning Back the Clock,” an analysis by English film executive Adrian Wootton; and 1948 Lux Radio performance of “The Big Clock,” with Milland and O’Sullivan, accompanied by stills from the movie.

Especially interesting is the “new appreciation” of Laughton, by actor/writer/stage director Simon Callow. Callow says that after Laughton’s magnificent performance in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” he seemed “to have lost his way as an actor,” by which Callow suggests he “either lost his judgment or wasn’t asked to do interesting things.” Callow wonders if “Hunchback” burned him out, after which he “transferred his energy to teaching, directing and acting on the stage.”

Callow calls Laughton’s 1955 directorial turn on “Night of the Hunter” a triumph. One exception to the post-“Hunchback” movie slump was “The Big Clock.” Something, says Callow, appealed to Laughton about the character of Janoth, but he probably also liked the idea of working with Farrow and O’Sullivan. The role, adds Callow, “fits Laughton like a glove … [it is a] wonderfully complex, sly, subtle, dangerous performance.”

Callow notes that Milland had a “physical loathing” for Laughton because of Laughton’s homosexuality – and that Laughton “might have used that in his utterly fascinating performance.” Callow says that Laughton “was a highly cultured man,” who was well-versed in the history of art, of which he was a connoisseur and collector.

— Peggy Earle

George's dilemma: he must find the man who was in Pauline's apartment -- himself.

Upper left, George gives Earl and Steve updates on the investigation; Earl's mute henchman, Bill Womack (Harry Morgan) tends to his boss; George hides from the antiques dealer who can identify him; The antiques dealer recognizes George in the building.

Georgette and George confront Steve with the truth.





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