The Big Clock

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The Big Clock is a 1948 thriller about a race against time; a manhunt where the protagonist is essentially hunting himself. Does that sound complicated? Well, the plot is complex but it never becomes incomprehensible.

George Stroud (Ray Milland) is the overworked editor of a crime magazine who yearns for a holiday with his family. Just when this seems in sight his boss, time-obsessed media tycoon Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), insists that he postpone his vacation and follow up on a breaking news story. In a fit of pique, he tenders his resignation and ends up spending a drunken evening with Janoth’s mistress. While exiting the girl’s apartment Stroud sees his boss arriving, while the boss sees only a silhouette. Goaded into a rage by the mistress, Janoth clubs her to death. On the advice of his reptilian chief executive (George Macready) he now plans to pin the deed on the shadowy stranger he glimpsed in the corridor. To this end, Stroud is recalled to co-ordinate the manhunt.

This is a great suspenseful picture, and you really sense Milland’s mounting horror as he is forced to use his own investigative team and techniques to gradually build up a profile of the mystery man; a man who he knows better than anyone. The two principal female roles are taken by Maureen O’Sullivan (who was married to director John Farrow) as Stroud’s wife, and Rita Johnson as the ill-fated mistress. I always enjoy anything with that inveterate scene stealer Charles Laughton, and he gives one of his more restrained performances here. There are lots of familiar faces in the support cast, not least Laughton’s real life spouse Elsa Lanchester as an eccentric artist and her turn damn near steals the whole show. Harry Morgan also shows up as a darkly┬ámenacing gunman on Janoth’s payroll, made all the more┬ásinister by the fact that his character utters not a word on screen. Seasoned noir watchers may also recognise Harold Vermilyea who remains forever memorable, for me at least, as the doomed Waldo Evans from Sorry, Wrong Number.

If the plot to this movie seems slightly familiar that may be due to the fact that it was remade in the 80’s as No Way Out, with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman in the Milland and Laughton roles respectively. That film was not bad but, to my mind at least, not a patch on the original – isn’t that usually the case?

The Big Clock is available in R1 as part of the now, apparently, defunct Universal Noir line. If any fans of classic noir/suspense don’t already own this, I can only ask – Why?