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The Big Clock

The Big Clock(1948)

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teaser The Big Clock (1948)

In The Big Clock (1948), George Stroud, (Milland) the editor ofCrimeways magazine has been given the task of solving a murderbefore his own staff finds evidence that will point to him as the killer. As he races to find the real murderer, Milland discovers that his searchhas led him to his magazine's corporate headquarters. Located in a massivetower within the cold confines of those headquarters, the big clock seemsto dominate and watch over everything. Even when Milland hides in a roomjust behind the clock, it's as if he's trapped inside a box of time withinother boxes, one onto the other. All of them enclosed in the labyrinthiancorridors of the imposing, futuristic-looking Janoth building. Time is the real enemy in The Big Clock. Even the murder weapon, asundial, reinforces this notion.

The Big Clock is directed by John Farrow in an elegant style,described by Simon Callow in his book, Charles Laughton: A DifficultActor, as "nearly" noir. As Callow puts it, "The play of shadows ishandled in a masterly way, while the plot with its inversions andconvolutions, presents an image of nightmarish reversals." Callow alsospeculates that Laughton, as Earl Janoth, the owner of a publishing empire,seemed to be, "drawing attention to the robotic heartlessness of bigbusiness." Just after World War Two, Americans were witnessing thebuilding of corporate giants, and the complications that come from suchgrowth and progress. As much as The Big Clock is an entertaining thriller, it also seems to be an attempt to come to grips with that loss of identity within the corporate milieu. Workers, now faced with more powerful corporate heads in the newstreamlined workplace, could relate to Laughton's cunning portrayal of whatCallow called, "a Napoleon of print." And the camera follows Laughtonclosely. It captures his nervous tics and twitches as he rules hisemployees with a fierce adherence to the adage that time does, indeed,equal money. A perfect example of this occurs when Laughton gives an order to an underling: "There's a bulb been burning for hours in a cupboard on the fourth floor. Find out who's responsible and dock his pay, will you?"

Charles Laughton probably played more memorable and varied characters thanany actor who ever lived. Remember him as Captain Bligh in Mutiny onthe Bounty, or as the butler who was won in a poker game in Rugglesof Red Gap, or as Javert in Les Miserables? All were releasedin the same year -1935! And then there's Laughton as the hearty monarch, Henry theVIII in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), or as the hauntingQuasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), or as a defenseattorney outwitting everyone in Witness for the Prosecution (1957). In The Big Clock Laughton gives one of his more fascinatingperformances. As Earl Janoth, he rules over a publishing world that wouldrival Hearst or Murdoch. As Callow puts it, "The performance is atechnical tour-de-force of high-speed throwaway, comic and powerful at the same time." We know everything about what he (Janoth) is, and how heworks - like a clock, as it happens, the image that dominates and unifies thewhole film."

But it was Ray Milland who received top billing in The Big Clock, a rather ironic turn of events considering that Laughton once helped Milland as a struggling young actor in asupporting role in Payment Deferred (1932). If anything was made ofthis Hollywood twist of fate, it doesn't show in the final product. Thetwo men work well together and Milland is, as always, the consummateprofessional. We feel his confusion and anxiety as a man who misses atrain and has a fateful, soon-to-be disastrous meeting. A meeting whichleaves him a man on the run, desperate to clear himself of murder. BornReginald Alfred John Truscott-Jones, the official word on how he changedhis name to Milland confirms that he took it from his stepfather's surname,Mullane. But the Hollywood version of the facts is more interesting: He took the nameMilland because of his fond memories of the mill lands in his home area ofNeath in Wales. The actor had a long and distinguished career (57years in the movies), specializing in well-bred heroes and proper British gentlemen. But when Milland won the Oscar for his gritty portrayal of an alcoholic inThe Lost Weekend (1945), he began to take on less glamorous, more challengingroles. In movies like Dial M for Murder (1954), for example, hecomes full circle playing a jaded sophisticate and man-about-town who plots his wife's murder. Coming just two years after The Lost Weekend, The Big Clock came at a transitional point in Milland's career, offering him a role that falls somewhere between the elegant leading man of his earlier period and the more cynical and corrupt characters he later essayed.

Based on Kenneth Fearing's novel of the same name, The Big Clock wasremade as No Way Out (1987). A conspiracy thriller set in Washington, D.C. and starring Kevin Costner, it is best remembered for a steamy sex scene between Costner and Sean Young in the back seat of a car.

As a final note there were two real life couples working on The Big Clock. Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's wife, plays an eccentric artist in a funny supporting role, and Maureen O'Sullivan, John Farrow's wife, took a small role as Milland's long-suffering spouse in order to be closer to her director husband. The third of the Farrows' seven children is the actress, Mia Farrow.

Producer: John Farrow, Richard Maibaum
Director: John Farrow
Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer, based on the novel by Kenneth Fearing
Art Direction: Roland Anderson, Hans Dreier, Albert Nozaki
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp, John F. Seitz
Costume Design: Edith Head
Film Editing: LeRoy Stone
Original Music: Victor Young
Principal 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), Dan Tobin (Roy Cordette).
BW-95m. Closed captioning.

by Joseph D'Onofrio

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