Release Date(s)1948 (May 14, 2019)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Arrow Academy)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A
The Big Clock opens with George Stroud (Ray Milland) trapped, his life in danger. In flashback, we learn that Stroud works for media mogul Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) as the editor of Crimeways magazine. Janoth runs his empire with minute-by-minute precision and is fixated on clocks, especially the huge clock he installed atop the skyscraper that bears his name.
Stroud laments that only twenty-four hours earlier, he was just about to depart for a long-delayed honeymoon with his wife, Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan), and their young son, when Janoth ordered him to cancel his plans yet again to follow up on a hot story. Stroud refuses and is fired, setting in motion a chain of events that leave him a suspect in a murder.
Now unemployed and depressed, Stroud misses his wife’s train and encounters Pauline York (Rita Johnson), Janoth’s unhappy mistress. They get drunk together as they hit one bar after another. The next day, sober, Stroud joins Georgette on their vacation, but Janoth soon phones to apologize and ask him to lead an investigation into the identity and whereabouts of a murderer on the run. Putting clues together, Stroud soon realizes that he is the unidentified suspect. As the police close in, Stroud tries to subvert the investigation to throw his staff off track.
Director John Farrow has crafted a first-rate suspense film with touches of film noir, screwball comedy, and traditional thriller. The performances of Milland and Laughton are excellent, and the fine supporting cast includes Elsa Lanchester (Laughton’s wife) as an eccentric artist who figures prominently in the film’s second half. Clearly on hand for comic relief, her Louise Patterson is an unheralded artist ready with a humorous quip or non sequitur. Her high-pitched laughter often throws off those around her, who suspect she’s either nervous or simply crazy. George Macready plays Steve Hagen, Janoth’s close associate and advisor, and Harry Morgan (TV’s M*A*S*H) is Bill Womack, Janoth’s lurking, sinister Man Friday. Character actor Lloyd Corrigan plays a jovial radio actor who comes in handy when Stroud appears to be at the end of his rope.
Laughton turns in a memorable performance of the time-obsessed Janoth, with quirky mannerisms and affectations to show the character’s eccentricities and establish him as an insufferable megalomaniac who relishes his ability to control the lives of his employees. Any compliments or attention he provides are strictly tied to ulterior motives. Laughton’s Janoth makes an almost regal entrance into his board room with his entourage, instantly notices an absent editor, comments, and moves on, not wasting a moment. This role represents some of Laughton’s finest work on the big screen.
Milland was a popular leading man of the period and does a splendid job of Stroud pretending to lead a thorough investigation while trying to find out who the actual killer is before he’s arrested. Virtually trapped in the Janoth Building, he contrives to elude witnesses and scores of cops as he stealthily moves from one floor to the next, one office to another, the building a frustrating labyrinth with no escape.
Director Farrow uses long takes with the camera tracking actors who move in and out of frame. Often, the camera will follow a character from one office to another, which gives the film a constant sense of movement even though it’s set almost entirely in a single office building. He doesn’t use close-ups much, but when he does, the compositions are dramatic, as when Janoth’s mouth twitches in anger. Lighting varies from very bright in office scenes to shadowy in the building’s corridors and clock control room. Briskly paced, The Big Clock is based on a novel by Kenneth Fearing with a screenplay by Jonathan Latimer.
The Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented with an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The master was prepared in High Definition by Universal Pictures and delivered to Arrow Films. Picture quality is very good – not as sharp as, say, Criterion Collection releases of similar vintage but with no significant distractions or obstacles to enjoyment. The print has been transferred from original film elements. The only major special effects shot involves a series of dissolves in the opening scene as the camera moves from outside the windows into the Janoth Building. A climactic scene casts dramatic shadows from a high-angle view of an elevator shaft.
Audio track is uncompressed Mono 1.0 LPCM. Dialogue is crisp, and even Laughton’s under-the-breath comments can be heard distinctly. Victor Young’s score is balanced effectively with dialogue and sound effects. In the bar scenes with Stroud and Pauline, the ambient sounds provide a realistic feel of business people enjoying a cocktail before heading home. Milland and Ms. Johnson speak louder than usual to hear each other above the din. Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing are included.
Bonus materials on the unrated Region A Blu-ray release include an audio commentary; an analysis of the film; a filmed appreciation of Charles Laughton, his career, and his performance in The Big Clock; a radio dramatization of The Big Clock; the theatrical trailer; a gallery of original stills and promotional materials; a booklet featuring a critical review; and reversible sleeve with two artwork options.
Audio Commentary – Film scholar Adrian Martin discusses the basis for the film – the novel by Kenneth Fearing. John Farrow is referred to as an underrated and distinctive director, who used deep focus, intricate lighting, and lengthy takes. The opening cityscape has the look of film noir, yet the movie has touches of screwball comedy. The Big Clock is not a typical flashback movie. The opening sets up questions and piques interest. In an early elevator scene, filmed in a single take, the elevator is stationary. At each stop, when the doors are opened, we see a different set to suggest a different floor. Farrow moves his camera through groups of people. Production design suggests an international style of architecture – clean lines with little ornamentation. The film has a “bifurcated structure.” Stroud realizes what has happened and must start his own investigation to protect himself. He starts as a victim hero, lured into danger, but becomes a seeker hero, finding his way out of a sticky situation. Time is a theme of the movie. Stroud is trying to stretch out the investigation. Janoth runs his enterprise with clockwork precision. The stopping of the large clock destabilizes Janoth, whose loyalties shift abruptly when Stroud gets close to discovering who the actual criminal is. Director Farrow caps off the film with a light touch.
Turning Back the Clock – This analysis is by critic and chief executive of Film London, Adrian Wootton. The Big Clock is an “oddity” among Hollywood’s films of the period. Author Kenneth Fearing was a poet. The narrative device is clever in both the novel and Jonathan Latimer’s screenplay adaptation. The novel is written in the third person and mixes social commentary, indictment of big business, and comedy. Latimer’s own wit is evident throughout. Wootton compares The Big Clock to The Thin Man series and Bringing Up Baby. “The hands of time are never ceasing… You’re going to get trapped by fate.” The story is inspired by the brutal murder of a New York heiress. Laughton made a career of “playing repugnant but compelling characters.” His mugging makes Janoth ugly and repellent. The role of Janoth’s henchman was an early one for Harry Morgan. In the novel, Stroud is a more “rock ’n’ roll man.”
A Difficult Actor – Simon Callow provides a lengthy profile of Charles Laughton. The actor had starred in many great films, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Les Miserables, and Mutiny on the Bounty, but seems to have lost his way by the 1940s. Many of his films of this period are forgettable. Laughton transferred his energy into teaching acting and taking on interesting character roles. He directed only one film, the eerie Night of the Hunter. In The Big Clock, a mainstream thriller, he’s in top form because the part fits him so well. Milland did not get along with Laughton, probably because Laughton was gay. Often difficult to work with, Laughton studied the script’s text to derive more and more out of it. He was “expressive in every pore” and audacious in his acting choices. He was influenced by German expressionism.
Radio Dramatization – Ray Milland and Maureen O’Sullivan reprise their motion picture roles in this 1948 presentation on Lux Radio Theatre.
Theatrical Trailer – In addition to brief scenes from The Big Clock, this trailer features Ray Milland doing a promotional preview of the movie on the radio.
Image Gallery – Two galleries are included:
1. Posters and Press Materials
2. Production Stills (Black-and-White)
Booklet – The 16-page insert booklet features the critical essay The Inner Workings of The Big Clock by Christina Newland, film credits, 6 black-and-white photos from the movie, a color poster reproduction, information about the transfer, production credits, and special thanks.
– Dennis Seuling