Sep 261948

There is evil in the world, but the reason is the corporate state, which is the clock that counts out the hours of our lives. If we can just break away from that big clock, everything will work out. This is Film Noir-light with a big dose of social commentary.

Directed by: John Farrow
Written by: Jonathan Latimer (from the novel by Kenneth Fearing)
Produced by: John Farrow, Richard Maibaum
Paramount, 1948
Runtime: 95 min

Cast: Ray Milland (George Stroud), Charles Laughton (Earl Janoth), Maureen O’Sullivan (Georgette Stroud), George Macready (Steve Hagen), Rita Johnson (Pauline York), Elsa Lanchester (Louise Patterson), Harry Morgan (Bill Womack)

A Few Thoughts

The Big Clock lets us identify with a man who must lead a murder investigation where every clue will point to him being the murderer. What is your next step when anything you find can hang you?

This is light Film Noir with a big dose of social commentary. Using the third on my list of the popular Film Noir plots, The Big Clock opens with innocent, crime magazine editor, George Stroud (Ray Milland) running from the law and his powerful, media mogul boss. Shadows are everywhere and the tone is dark and hopeless. Stroud, in typical Film Noir fashion, then tells us how he got there. This plot demands a good man with a flaw, and Stroud has one: he’s a workaholic that doesn’t pay enough attention to his wife. Due to that flaw, he ends up in a bar with his boss’ mistress instead of off on his long delayed honeymoon. They spend the evening together, but due to 1948 standards, their relationship is purely platonic (unlike in the novel). When the boss, Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) drops by the mistress’s apartment, he spots a man leaving, although the angle and darkness makes it impossible to make out that it’s Stroud. In a rage, half fueled by jealousy, half by self-doubt, Janoth kills the girl, and then decides to place the blame on the unknown figure he saw. The film then kicks into high gear as Janoth assigns Stroud the task of finding the killer. Milland is excellent as the desperate man searching for a way out and Laughton makes for an enjoyably oily villain, if perhaps a bit overplayed.

Certainly this is Film Noir. The flashback. The narration. The crime. The shadows. But The Big Clock doesn’t live in a world of sinners. There are good people here: Stroud’s wife, his loyal bar friends, and the comic painter (played with glee by Elsa Lanchester).  These are all characters from outside the company. The evil in The Big Clock is the capitalist corporation. It is the big clock which counts out the hours of men’s lives. Those who embrace it are corrupted by it, and none more so than those at the top, like Janoth. It was stealing Stroud’s soul, ever so slowly, tick by tick. If this feels like a bit of old-time communist idealism, you’re right. Novelist Fearing leaned toward the red, though he leaned more toward a good drink. The Big Clock breaks the Film Noir philosophy by being extremely positive. Yes, there is evil in the world and villains all around us, but the reason is identified, and if we can just break away from that big clock, everything will work out. I long for those days of political innocence.

The Big Clock was remade in 1987 as No Way Out, with Kevin Costner taking over Ray Milland’s role. In an amusing twist, this version has our hero searching not for a murderer (though the murder does take place), but for an invented Russian spy. All of the Film Noir influences, as well as the social theme, was removed leaving a satisfying, if meaningless spy thriller.


The DVD is a no frills affair.  While the film could use a bit of restoration, I was perfectly happy with the transfer.  It’s the best The Big Clock has looked in my lifetime.  With the no frills comes a cheap price, making this well worth the purchase.