The Big Clock (1948) John Farrow

big-clock-title-stillJohn Farrow’s  “The Big Clock” is a taut thriller with a tightly wound  clock ticking away as its protagonist  becomes more and more isolated and desperate after he has been indirectly set up to take the fall for the murder of his tyrannical boss’ lover. The film is based on a novel by Kenneth Fearing with a screenplay by Jonathan Latimer. Adding nicely to the tension is John Seitz’s impressive cinematography. The theme of greed, the cut throat behavior and heartlessness that exists in the corporate world, makes this film relevant more today than ever.

BigclockGeorge Stroud (Ray Milland) has been working for Janoth Publications for seven years now. He is the editor of ‘Crimeways’ magazine. We first meet Stroud, as he attempts to avoid being caught by the police and others in the office building of the publishing firm where he works. He’s on the run, for what reason at this point we are not sure. He’s hides behind the ‘big clock,’ the centerpiece in the office building’s lobby, as well as publishing czar Earl Janoth’s (Charles Laughton) prize possession.

Like many crime films of the era, “The Big Clock” is told in flashback. We learn Stroud’s marriage is facing a crisis. Because of his job, in their seven years of marriage, the couple have yet to have a honeymoon vacation. George finally agrees he will take the time off immediately and they will go on their long-delayed honeymoon. He promises  his wife, Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan), they will meet at the train station that evening. However, the big bossman, Janoth, an egomaniac tyrant with an annoying habit of twirling his mustache, has other ideas. He wants Stroud to stay at work and continue investigating a hot new story that will dramatically increase circulation. Stroud however sticks to his guns and quits that afternoon not succumbing to Janoth’s threats he will have him blackballed in the business if he leaves.

bigclcockAfter work, but before meeting Georgette that night at the train depot, Stroud stops at a local watering hole where he meets hot looking blonde, Pauline Delos (Rita Johnson), who unknown to Stroud is Janoth’s mistress. They drink a bit too much and head back to Pauline’s apartment where she proposes, no, not that they make love, but a blackmail scheme against Janoth whom they both have come to hate. However, they are interrupted when Janoth unexpectedly arrives, but not before Stroud leaves using the stairwell just as Janoth appears exiting the elevator. The big bad boss sees a male figure just starting down the stairwell but does not recognize who it is.

Meanwhile, Georgette, tired of waiting at the train station for George, boards and leaves town without him.

Janoth, suspects the man he saw heading down the stairwell was leaving Pauline’s apartment and jealously demands to know who it was. An argument ensues and Janoth kills Pauline using an object Stroud and Pauline acquired earlier in the evening.

Later, Janoth confides to his close trusted aid, Steve Hagen (George Macready), about the murder he just committed and together they devise a scheme to search for the ‘real’ killer. Janoth lures Stroud back from his honeymoon, to investigate the murder. But the clues begins to mount focusing more and more on Stroud as the killer, leaving him to investigate on his own the tracking down of the real murderer.

Charles Laughton’s quirky mannerisms highlight a superbly mannered performance. In addition, there are notable turns by Rita Johnson as Janoth’s mistress and Elsa Lanchester in a small, though delightful, supporting role as an eccentric artist. Also in the cast are Harry Morgan, billed as Henry Morgan, as Janoth’s silent but deadly henchman.

Big Clock Movie Theater-Times squareParamountIn doing some research, I have found this film to be continually labeled as a film noir, but I don’t believe it is, at best, it’s borderline. It does not contain the cynicism, the gloom, the femme fatale, noirs are noted for having.  There is some nice noirish style lighting at times, however I still think it is much closer in style to a Hitchcockian thriller filled with shady characters, and most of all, nerve wracking suspense.

On a side note, the film has the unusual situation of having two real life married couples working on the film. Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester were husband and wife as were director John Farrow and Maureen O’Sullivan. “The Big Clock” opened in New York at the Paramount theater on Broadway on April 21st, 1948. It is also the basis for the 1987 Kevin Costner film, “No Way Out.”


13 comments on “The Big Clock (1948) John Farrow

  1. John, file this under “Kismet,” because THE BIG CLOCK has long been one of my favorite novels AND movie versions! I read the novel first — author Kenneth Fearing began as a poet — and now I have both versions both terrific. I thought Johnathon Latimer did a swell job, with lots of witty scenes, and besides, who would’nt love Charles and Elsa? How’s this for serendipity: a couple of weeks ago, I sighed on for the SLEUTHATHON before I even know you were in it! What are the odds? 😀 In any case, BRAVO to you on your excellent BIG CLOCK post post, and let us pat each other on the back, as we both have great excellent taste in books and movies! Warmest wishes to you and Dorothy, and have a wonderful weekend!


  2. John Greco says:

    Dorian, I must say, we do have good taste! (LOL). I have not read the novel but I sure would like to get my hands on a copy of it. Will be checking out the local libraries for a copy. The film is filled with wonderful performances of which I think Laughton and Lanchester are my favorites here. He is a devious SOB and Elsa is just kookiness filled with charm. Thanks for the wishes and the same to you, Vinny and Siobhan!


  3. Oh boy, there are just so many things to love about this film. I love the opening scene, with Milland on the run, because it’s only minutes into the film and you know you’re hooked.

    I agree with you: this film is almost more relevant today than when it was first released.


  4. “John Farrow’s “The Big Clock” is a taut thriller with a tightly wound clock ticking away as its protagonist becomes more and more isolated and desperate after he has been indirectly set up to take the fall for the murder of his tyrannical boss’ lover” – that’s the perfect summation of this terrific noir. However, though based on the journalism industry, unlike, say, Sweet Smell of Success or Ace in the Hole, this wasn’t as searing an indictment on the news-hungry corporates (though it did allude to that nonetheless). In the end it was a feverishly paced & incredibly exciting thriller, with a great sense of claustrophobia (in terms of how the net keeps closing down on him) pervading the mood. After I watched the film I read the source novel by Kenneth Fearing as well. Though a reasonably good read, Farrow certainly managed to better the book, which is a rarity in the case of literary adaptations.


    • John Greco says:

      I have not read the book but would like to find it. The film is a terrific thriller and I think you point of it having “a great sense of claustrophobia” is well taken. Thanks as always!


  5. Sam Juliano says:

    Very interesting statistical anecdote there at the end John! But yes, definitely a tense and gripping film for the lion”s share of its duration and one that boasts some fine performances by legendary stars, and as you note the terrific contribution here by John Seitz. I’ve always been fond of this one, and much appreciate this expert piece of writing!


    • John Greco says:

      Sam, I have seen this a few times and have come to like it more and more. Both the photography and acting are real highlights! Thanks!!!


  6. classicfilmtvcafe says:

    John, I wouldn’t label it as a noir either. It certainly is Hitchcockian, though (as is Milland’s equally good MINISTRY OF FEAR, directed by Fritz Lang). It’s a fine thriller which features two of my favorite set pieces–a time-sensitive plot and a somewhat confined setting. Very entertaining review of a film that should be more famous.


    • John Greco says:

      Rick, I agree MINISTRY OF FEAR is also a fine thriller and Milland delivers another fine performance. And yes, it should be better known!


  7. Judy says:

    I read the book a year or two back and really enjoyed Fearing’s sweet hard-boiled prose style – then went on to see and love the film too. I must say it seemed like a noir to me, but I’m no expert in the genre – I was mainly going on the moody lighting and camera angles. Great review, John, and I must agree there are similarities to Hitchcock, in particular the build-up of unbearable tension.


    • John Greco says:


      Thanks Judy, I tried looking for the book in a library this week but have yet to come across it. Couple more places to look before I break down and buy it online. (LOL) . The lighting and the camera angles did lend a somewhat noir feel but, at least to me, it feels more like a striaght out suspense/thriller. Thanks as always. Have a great weekend!.


  8. […] John Farrow’s excellent, The Big Clock, the clock itself is symbolic of Janoth’s, Charles Laughton’s character, ego and power. […]


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