The IMDb description of The Big Clock succinctly tells the story of what happens – “A magazine tycoon commits a murder and pins it on an innocent man, who then tries to solve the murder himself” – while remaining silent about the massive irony at the centre of the story. The further the man advances with his investigation, the more he’s going to incriminate himself.
It’s also about the fact that the entire story is seen through the eyes of the innocent man. It’s dependable Ray Milland as the “man”. George Stroud is a journalist at the top of his game, who’s made his name on a true crime magazine bringing in the villains the police can’t seem to find by deploying a method that looks at all the clues – not just the important ones. He’s got a big system of blackboards and a team of highly skilled researchers and reporters. It’s a well oiled machine and George always gets his man.
Sadly for George, it’s a machine that’s going to be put to work tracking down someone who very well may be George, since he was the last person to see goodtime girl Pauline before she was bludgeoned to death. Second to last, actually, a fact George knows very well. Right after he’d left Pauline’s apartment after an evening of old-school heroic journalistic drinking, George saw her next visitor arriving. Just to make clear – he saw the visitor; the visitor did not see him.
But he can’t go to the police, partly because he’s a married man and partly because the actual killer is his boss, the “magazine tycoon”, the driven, micro-managing tyrant Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), who gets George to swing his detective apparatus into play, hoping to find the guy who was in the apartment just before he showed up, to pin the murder on that guy rather than himself. Janoth knows someone was there before him, and he’s doctored the evidence to deflect suspicion away from himself. All he needs is a fall guy.
There’s a Moebius-ring logic at play here – the better the investigator, the more trouble he’s in. But even without that knotty paradox at the centre this would be a great film to watch. John (father of Mia) Farrow’s fluid camera gets plenty of showoff moments in various crowd sequences, Elsa Lanchester (wife of Laughton) plays the most notable of quite a few eccentric characters, a dippy artist who meets George on the night in question. Maureen O’Sullivan (wife of Farrow) hasn’t much to do in an underwritten role as George’s snippy wife, but she’s one of an all-round excellent cast notable for the amount of flavour even the tiniest blur-on performers (as fellow journalists, security guards, barkeeps, secretaries) bring to their roles.
But at the heart of it is Milland, who pulls off a neat double trick. While “advancing” the investigation, George is obviously doing everything he can to hold it back, without incriminating himself. Milland, in a similar move, plays both to his fellow cast members and out to the audience, subtly telegraphing when various plot pennies have dropped. It’s very, very nicely done.
Film noir? Not really. It’s more the sort of thriller Hitchcock might have made, with a crackingly on-the-money soundtrack from Victor Young – trembling strings, blaring brass – which helps raise the tension as the net starts to tighten around George and he becomes more desperate.
As to the titular Big Clock, it’s arguable that it’s a big distraction, but it is where George starts the film, inside Earl Janoth’s electromechanical pride and joy, a symbol of the world of logic and consequences which George inhabits and which is now threatening to finish him. Actually, the film works brilliantly at that level too, as an interior design magazine of the moment of American high modernism when metal and glass seemed to be the answer to everything.
It’s not art. The Big Clock doesn’t advance film-making as a form one iota. But it is a joy to watch people this skilled at their craft – in front of and behind the camera – showing us what they can do with good material. Hats off to Kenneth Fearing’s original novel.
The Big Clock – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022