It is comforting to know that the motion picture industry has not changed very much since its inception just over a century ago. The primary purpose of the product is still to entertain; to draw multitudes into the theater, there to take part in a collective escapist experience that distracts from the mundane cares of day-to-day existence. To that end there have always been, and always will be, movies made for the pure thrill of an adventure, free from the didacticism of any higher moral purpose. Director John Farrow’s adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s suspense novel THE BIG CLOCK (1948), is just such a film, and triumphantly so.
A breakneck thrill ride right from the opening, THE BIG CLOCK immediately poses the question of how our protagonist, successful and respected George Stroud (perennial everyman Ray Milland), on the eve of a long-awaited vacation, become a hunted fugitive in just 36 hours. And off we go. Flashing back to the innocent and innocuous state of affairs 36 hours previous, we slowly but surely find out. There remains a constant awareness of time passing throughout the story, symbolized by the enormous clock, the “largest and most sophisticated ever built,” that is both centerpiece and tourist attraction in the lobby of the Janoth Publishing building, our hero’s workplace.
Presiding over the entire enterprise is time-obsessed publishing mogul Earl Janoth, played to tyrannical perfection by the ever-entertaining Charles Laughton with menacingly measured movements and a grim, stoic countenance. Janoth plots to derail Stroud’s vacation and keep him at work, and the resulting cascade of events manages to keep us tightly in its clutches while effectively conjuring an entire urban cityscape surrounding the Janoth headquarters, one of restaurants, bars, pawnshops, and the colorful types that populate them. Director Farrow and screenwriter John Latimer keep things moving briskly and successfully balance a variety of moods. Altogether too sunny in disposition to qualify as a true “Film Noir,” THE BIG CLOCK instead manages to touch upon a number of different genres seamlessly: thriller, melodrama, romantic comedy and even screwball, featuring a large cast of unique and memorable characters including a fabulous comic turn by Elsa Lanchester as a kooky artist, Frank Orth as the nonplussed big city bartender, and Harry Morgan in an early role as a silent, sinister masseuse. Also significant is the use of the monolithic Janoth building itself as the labyrinthine stage for much of the film’s action.
There is something uniquely American about the enormous entity of the office building, something that lives in our collective subconscious and is particularly resonant as the cinematic backdrop for incongruous, even subversive, activities. From Chaplin roller-skating after hours in MODERN TIMES (1936) to the epic holiday party in Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT (1960), the madcap antics of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (1967) to the glistening period production THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994) in which its creators, Joel and Ethan Coen, pay direct homage to THE BIG CLOCK, the gigantic company building has exerted a certain fascination on our national consciousness. There is always something supremely satisfying about these huge, imposing, impassive structures becoming the settings for unintended adventures, something that goes hand in hand with the subversive, vicarious, voyeuristic thrill of cinema itself.
And so the sober, stately Janoth building comes to resemble an enormous playground as teams of employees and law enforcement officers scurry all around searching for the killer that hides somewhere within, while Stroud at once orchestrates the search while trying to sabotage it. Naturally the famous clock becomes part of the action as well, providing additional visual flair for the continuing game of cat and mouse.
It all adds up to escapist entertainment of the highest order, a vigorous thrill ride full of gasps and laughs to leave one fully refreshed and without any ill effects. And in that formula, and certainly in Laughton’s deliciously deadpan comic book villain performance, producer Richard Maibaum must have found something worth remembering. Years later Maibaum turned his attention and talents to writing, and became the man responsible for most of the James Bond screenplays in the first three decades of that franchise, beginning with the very first, DR. NO (1962), and continuing well into the 1980s.