That’s the dandy premise behind The Big Clock, a smart 1948 suspense film sometimes misclassified as a film noir. Ray Milland stars as the protagonist, who explains his predicament via voiceover in the opening scene and then flashes back to 36 hours earlier.
George Stroud (Milland) works at Crimeways, one of many magazines published by ruthless media magnate Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton). Stroud, who specializes in finding criminals on the run, is looking forward to his honeymoon. It’s a bit overdue considering he and his wife (Maureen O’Sullivan) have a five-year-old son. When Janoth directs him to cancel his vacation plans and personally cover a story, Stroud quits his high-pressure job. That evening he meets Pauline, a pretty blonde (Rita Johnson) who turns out to be one of Janoth’s disenchanted mistresses.
Instead of meeting his family at the train depot, Stroud commiserates with Pauline. They visit several bars, stop at an antique shop, and wind up at her apartment. She nudges a tipsy Stroud out the side door when Janoth arrives unexpectedly. When Pauline berates Janoth during an argument, he flies into a rage and kills her.
Janoth turns to Steve Hagen (George Macready), his second-in-command, who covers up the crime. The only problem is that Janoth saw a man standing in the shadows outside Pauline’s apartment door. He and Macready decide to pin the murder on the mysterious stranger…assuming they can find him. And who better to track down a suspected killer than George Stroud?
While there is much to like in The Big Clock, uneven performances and a lack of attention to detail hamper it to some extent. Charles Laughton, who can be a very fine actor, makes Janoth into a one-dimensional monster. When he strokes his mustache with one finger, it’s oddly reminiscent of an intentionally overplayed vaudeville villain. Ray Milland fares better as the hero, but I’d expect a crime journalist to show more intelligence when it comes to investigating a murder scene. When Stroud returns to Pauline’s apartment, he picks up a clock–thereby marking it with his fingerprints (and yes, fingerprints were admissible as evidence in U.S. courts as early as 1911).
The standouts in the cast are Rita Johnson as Janoth’s mistress and Harry Morgan as a masseuse who doubles as a killer. Morgan doesn’t have a line of dialogue, but lurks creepily in the background as Stroud and his team conduct inquiries. I was expecting an exciting confrontation when he encounters Stroud inside the “clock room” of the Janoth building. Alas, one punch knocks Morgan’s character down some stairs and he never appears again.
As for Rita Johnson, she appeared in many classic films (Here Comes Mr. Jordan, The Major and the Minor), but usually in secondary roles. She turns Pauline into a bright, likable character who flirts sweetly with Stroud and then verbally attacks Janoth aggressively. In real life, Rita Johnson suffered a brain injury in 1948 that caused lapses of memory and partial paralysis. The official story was that a large hair dryer had fallen on her in her apartment. However, she had other bruises on her body that led to speculation that she may have been beaten. After her brain surgery, she only appeared in a handful of films. She died in 1965 at age 52. Click here to read an article about her alleged accident.
Director John Farrow, husband of Maureen O’Sullivan, directs with a sure hand and emphasizes the importance of time, but he adds little stylistically. His opening tracking shot from the outside to the inside of the Janoth building recalls Roy William Neill’s earlier Black Angel (1946). The interior of the big clock, the film’s most interesting set, is barely used. John Seitz’s black-and-white cinematography is crisp as always. He worked on several famous noirs (e.g., Double Indemnity, This Gun for Hire), which I assume is why some critics consider The Big Clock to be a film noir. Thematically, though, it doesn’t fit in that genre (now it might be different if Stroud had been unfaithful to his wife).
Rick Armstrong is the proprietor of the fantastic movie blog The Classic Film and TV Cafe. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare too of course!