Monday, November 19, 2012

Movie Monday: The Big Clock

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1948 film noir The Big Clock!

The Big Clock stars Ray Milland, Maureen O'Sullivan, George MacReady, plus real-life couple Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. Milland plays a man named George Stroud who, as the film opens, seems to be on the run from the law. He's hiding in the darkness from a security guard, narrowly escaping being found:
How, as Stroud narrates, did he get here? When, just 24 hours earlier, he was an upstanding member of society, a successful magazine editor for the mammoth company known as Janoth Publications:
This is the clock in question, an absurdly grand construction that sits in the middle of the lobby of the Janoth building, dwarfing the human figures that move around it. As a tour guide explains, you can learn what time it is anywhere in the world thanks to this clock, which was built specifically from instructions by Earl Janoth himself (Charles Laughton).

Stroud has been working for Janoth for a few years, and has had a meteoric rise. So meteoric that he and his wife (O'Sullivan) haven't had a proper honeymoon, even though they already have a small child! Stroud has to put in one last day before he goes on an oft-delayed vacation:
There's a fun sequence in the Janoth elevator, where in one unbroken shot we see people get on and get off different floors. Not only does it give us an overview of just how big Janoth Publications is (it seems to publish dozens of glossy, high-end magazines, covering all sorts of subjects), but its a fun visual trick, thanks to some nice back-screen projection. (Nerd Bonus: TV Lois Lane Noel Neill plays the elevator operator!)

Stroud runs a true crime magazine, and has been a whiz at finding bad guys even before the police. There's currently a suspect on the run, and Stroud assigns his staff to look into the case.
Meanwhile, there's a meeting held by all the magazine editors, and by Janoth himself:
This is Laughton's first scene, and he comes in and destroys the place. Janoth is a rude, condescending, arrogant tool, the worst kind of boss imaginable: he shoots down people's ideas, talks over them, and belittles them in front of the others. He's a total delight to watch, and Laughton seems to be having the time of his life playing such a dick.

Janoth talks privately with Stroud, demanding that he take up the new case personally, delaying his honeymoon yet again. Janoth fires Stroud, right on the spot, even saying he'll blackball him in the industry. Stroud doesn't seem to care, accepts Janoth's decision, and leaves.

On his way out, Stroud runs into Janoth's mistress Pauline York (Rita Johnson), and they go out drinking, so much so that Stroud misses the train he was supposed to take with his family to their vacation spot. Now a little tipsy, Stroud and York take a liquid tour of Manhattan, at one point stopping in an antique store buying a painting of two hands holding a clock, right out from under another buyer, a dotty lady played Elsa Lanchester.

Stroud and York go to her apartment, and Janoth sees a man leaving later in the night, not realizing it's his former employee. Janoth confronts his mistress, who mocks him to his face, leading this titan of industry to commit cold-blooded murder.

I don't want to say any more about the plot of The Big Clock, because there are more surprises to come. There's a bunch of great character performances, like George MacReady (Paths of Glory) as Janoth's oily second-hand-man, plus Harry Morgan (again!) as Janoth's seemingly-mute (he never utters a word) masseuse and all-around goon:
Morgan's character lurks around the edges of the movie, seemingly always in the background, glowering. He's a blast to watch, because he's a hired gun trying to blend in among all these high-end magazine types, and he sticks out like a sore thumb.

Also wonderful in the movie is Elsa Lanchester, as a starving artist who is a key to the whole case that develops around the murder. We meet her again at her small apartment, which is littered with kids, all from different fathers/husbands:
She and her husband only have one scene together, where they are at odds; I can only imagine how much fun they had doing it.
Eventually, the noose tightens around the people involved, leading to a violent conclusion (which the poster partly gives away, thanks Paramount marketing department) and a reminder that you should always watch your step around elevator shafts.

Anyway, I heartily recommend The Big Clock to any film noir fan. It's a load of fun, filled with great performances, nice twists and turns, and great sets--in these days of magazines and newspapers withering away to extinction, the movie made me nostalgic for a time I personally never experienced, when working for a magazine meant you got to go to work in mile-high, gleaming skyscrapers that looked like they came right out of Metropolis. It all looks so fabulous and glamorous, even with all the murders!

The Big Clock was suggested for Movie Monday by my Ace Kilroy partner Dan O'Connor. Thanks Dan!



Robert M. Lindsey said...

Used to have this on VHS. I like The Big Clock, but I always think there's something missing. I'm not sure what it is, but it doesn't click with me the way most other noirs do. I do like Manchester in it a lot though, and Laughton eats up the scenery and is super fun to watch.

rob! said...

I think one of the things is that the titular clock doesn't really figure into the rest of the movie all that much. Sure, the idea of watches/clocks does, but they spent all that time and money on this huge clock set, and then we never really see it again.

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