Thursday, June 23, 2022

Playing With Time in “The Big Clock”

Alfred Hitchcock, it is said, was far more interested in suspense than in mystery. Rather than making Agatha Christie-type whodunits, in which we struggle to figure out the identity of the murderer, he focused on the tension surrounding the apprehension of the guilty party.  A particular favorite Hitchcock device was that of the “wrong man,” the innocent who’s wrongly accused of a serious crime and must spend the rest of the film trying to shake off those determined to apprehend and convict him.

 A 1946 novel proved much sought-after by the motion picture industry because of its elaborate twist on the “wrong man” genre. The Big Clock, by Kenneth Fearing, ultimately became (after several plot changes) a 1976 French crime drama starring Yves Montand, as well as a 1987 political thriller, No Way Out, with Kevin Costner in the leading role. But the film adaptation closest to the original material retained the book’s title, The Big Clock, and cast Hollywood stalwarts Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, and Maureen O’Sullivan as its leads. It was directed by John Farrow (yes, Mia’s father), and overseen by Richard Maibaum, a longtime producer and screenwriter best known today for his work on 13 James Bond screenplays.

 Like many a noir-type feature, the screen version of The Big Clock begins near its climax, with Ray Milland’s George Stroud hiding from the law inside an office tower distinguished by an enormous set of international clock faces. Time, as he notes in a voiceover, is not on his side. He’s wanted for murder, and the police are hot on his trail.

 Then we flip back a few hours to how it all began. Stroud is editor-in-chief of Crimeways Magazine, part of the Janoth publishing empire headquartered in the skyscraper that boasts the huge clock. So valuable is he to the imperious Earl Janoth (played with his usual outsized presence by Charles Laughton) that Stroud and his wife have never had a proper honeymoon. Now he’s determined to change all that, defying Janoth’s insistence that he give up a sweet little West Virginia getaway to follow up on some true-crime leads that have come his way.

 In sticking up for his personal freedoms, Stroud gets sacked, then finds himself in a barroom commiserating with Janoth’s unhappy mistress (Rita Johnson as Pauline York). It won’t be long before she turns up dead, and someone has glimpsed him stealing away from her apartment not long before the discovery of her murder with a blunt object that had recently been in his possession.

 The twist is that Janoth, much less interested in Pauline’s death than in the potential for covering an exciting manhunt in his magazines and tabloids, enlists Stroud to track down the killer. We know Stroud didn’t do it; we also know who did. But every clue he uncovers in the line of duty points back to himself as the guilty party. Before poetic justice is finally served in the film’s last few minutes, we see a man unraveling as he comes closer and closer to being apprehended for a crime he didn’t commit. Though there’s a morose take on corporate culture in The Big Clock, ultimately the wicked are punished and the righteous man finds his reward. Which is how the world should work, right?

 As always, Milland makes a good hero and Laughton steals the show as his avaricious boss. And, as is so often true, the women are basically just along for the ride. One exception is Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester, as a dotty artist who provides some much needed comic relief.


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