John Farrow's movie adaptation of Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock, based on a screenplay by Jonathan Latimer (and produced by future James Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum), is a near-perfect match for the book, telling in generally superb visual style a tale set against the backdrop of upscale 1940s New York and offering an early (but accurate) depiction of the modern media industry. Told in the back-to-front fashion typical of film noir, it opens with George Stroud (Ray Milland) trapped, his life in danger, his survival measured in the minute-by-minute movements of the huge central clock of the office building where he's hiding. In flashback we learn that Stroud works for media baron Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), loosely based on Henry Luce, as the editor of Crimeways magazine. Janoth is a manipulative, self-centered megalomaniac with various obsessions, including clocks; among other manifestations of the latter fixation, the skyscraper housing his empire's headquarters has as one of its central features a huge clock that reads out the time around the world down to the second.
Twenty-four hours earlier, on the eve of a combined honeymoon/vacation with his wife, Georgia (Maureen O'Sullivan), that has been put off for seven years, Stroud was ordered by Janoth to cancel the trip in order to work on a special project, and he resigned. As the narrative picks up speed, in his depression, Stroud misses the train his wife is on and crosses paths with Pauline York (Rita Johnson), a former model for Janoth's Styleways magazine, who is also Janoth's very unhappy mistress, and the two commiserate by getting drunk together in a night on the town. While hurriedly leaving Pauline's apartment, he glimpses Janoth entering. Janoth and York quarrel, and the publisher kills her in a jealous rage, using a sundial that she and Stroud picked up the night before while wandering around in their revels. Janoth and his general manager, Steve Hagen (George Macready), contrive to pin the murder on the man that Janoth glimpsed leaving York's apartment, whom he thinks was named Jefferson Randolph -- the name Stroud was drunkenly bandying about the night before. He gets Stroud back to Crimeways to lead the magazine's investigators in hunting down "Jefferson Randolph," never realizing that this was Stroud. And Stroud has no choice but to return, desperately trying to gather evidence against Janoth and, in turn, prevent the clues gathered by the Crimeways staff from leading back to him. The two play this clever, disjointed game of cat-and-mouse, Janoth and Hagen planting evidence that will hang "Randolph" (and justify his being shot while trying to escape), while Stroud, knowing what they don't about how close the man they seek to destroy is, arranges to obscure those clues and, in a comical twist, sends the least capable reporters and investigators to follow up on the most substantial clues.
Janoth sometimes seems to be unraveling at the frustrating pace and lack of conclusion to the hunt, but Stroud can't escape the inevitable, or the moments of weakness caused by fear and his own guilt over his near-unfaithfulness to his wife or the inscrutable gaze of Janoth's mute bodyguard Bill Womack (Harry Morgan), a stone-cold killer dedicated to protecting his employer. The trail of proof and guilt winds ever tighter around both men, taking some odd twists courtesy of the eccentric artist (Elsa Lanchester) who has seen the suspect. Milland is perfect in the role of the hapless Stroud, and Laughton is brilliant as the vain, self-centered Janoth, but George Macready is equally good as Hagen, his smooth, upper-crust Waspy smarminess making one's skin crawl. Also worth noting is Harry Morgan's sinister, silent performance as Womack, and sharp-eyed viewers will also recognize such performers as Douglas Spencer, Noel Neill (especially memorable as a tart-tongued elevator operator), Margaret Field (Sally's mother), Ruth Roman, and Lane Chandler in small roles. Additionally, the Janoth Publications building where most of the action takes place is almost a cast member in itself, an art deco wonder, especially the room housing the clock mechanism and the lobby and vestibules, all loosely inspired by such structures as the Empire State Building and the real-life Daily News headquarters on East 42nd Street. This film was later remade as No Way Out. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi
- Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, (more)