A good extra can take your appreciation of a movie to a whole new level. On Arrow Academy’s newly issued [the] Big Clock, Simon Callow has done just that with his video appreciation of Charles Laughton’s performance as the despotic magazine magnate, Janoth. Callow goes on to say that this era of the legendary actors career, and indeed anything post-Hunchback of Notre Dame, saw the actor burned out and he only really gave his all to a select few films – this being one of them. At this point of his career he was (apparently) reviled as a gay man in the very straight and macho 1940s Hollywood. His opposite number Ray Milland (George Stroud) hated him just as much as the Hollywood system and throughout Laughton was being openly provocative to produce more conflict between the two leads. It’s a historical context that heightens an already excellent noir/Hitchcockian wrong-man movie.
In the Big Clock, Janoth is a owner of a very successful news empire and he is introduced as a very direct and impatient man who doesn’t want to be delayed as expressed by his bulding having a big clock that keeps the correct time in any time zone. He fires a man because he doesn’t like green ink and he overworks his employees. One such employee is George Stroud who is very gifted at finding people the police cannot, the better he is at the job the more Janoth expects. So much so, Stroud has forcibly had his honeymoon cancelled for five years straight. Wanting to take that honeymoon, Stroud quits and becomes immediately involved in a plot with Janoth’s mistress. This does embrace a noir-like DNA so naturally, things turn out badly. The mistress (Rita Johnson) ends up being killed. Janoth and his most trusted employee, Hagen (George Macready), cover up the murder and try and pin it on the man she was seen with the night before, unbeknownst to them that man is Stroud. Janoth, uses Hagen and the might of Crimeways to find the mysterious man whilst Stroud tries to find the real killer.
Based on a book by Kenneth Fearing, the script by Jonathan Latimer is excellent. The tagline “the strangest and most savage manhunt in history” might not stand up today, but what does is the clarity. We get a few establishing scenes for the two leads before events take a turn for the worse, the script explains everything about its characters in a few short minutes. That staggering economy makes a mockery of those slow genre films that take half a runtime to set up their characters before anything actually happens. By comparison, Latimer strapped a rocket to the back of the Big Clock – every scene has purpose, a clue, a character moment – this is a perpetual motion machine always moving with purpose. The script is an extension of Janoth’s philosophy.
I opened remarking on how impressive Charles Laughton is. Before watching that extra (titled ‘A Difficult Actor’), Janoth is nothing more than a despicable character to the point where it was hard to seperate the role from the actor who was embodying it. It was only in watching that extra that the true brilliance of his performance came into focus. The character obeys the totality of time yet his speech pattern and body language are slow and deliberate. Janoth is a man of contrast, yet he will consistently rule with an iron fist of manipulation or fear. In a telling scene, he says to one of his more insidious employees that he is tired and needs a holiday; yet if any of his employees talked in the same way he’d fire them on the spot. Employees aren’t people to him, they are tools and as soon as these tools stop being useful he bins them (or blacklists them). Laughton’s performance is one of the most compelling I’ve seen in a noir and it is easy to understand why Callow described Laughton as the finest actor of his day.
The rest of the cast is good if not as towering as Laughton. Milland plays George Stroud as an upstanding man of moral fibre and its only in his scenes where Laughton is baiting him that his performance goes to that next level. Laughton’s career as a director may have been cut criminally short (Night of the Hunter, 1955), and for him to direct in small ways in his acting roles illustrates how crushing the upcoming failure of his sole directorial effort must have been. Another notable character is Elsa Lanchester’s struggling painter Louise Patterson who may have become my favourite supporting character in any noir. As she is introduced she is visited by the art correspondent under Janoth’s employ, her first hilarious words? “ah yes, I’ve been planning to kill you for years“. She is a relief character who adds colour to the bones of this lightning-paced noir. She escaped from a screwball comedy and found herself in a thriller.
I’d never heard of The Big Clock prior to this Arrow release, neither within the cannon of noir or 1940s cinema, instead, it has been all but forgotten. No film deserves such a fate especially one this good. The only missed step? The film opens with Stroud upset at the hand fate has dealt him, it then goes back 36 hours to tell how he got there. Too many noirs adopt this vacuous trope. Can that tactic be done well? Yes, but more often than not it’s a cheap distraction. Otherwise, the Big Clock is a thrilling lost classic that also happens to be one of the more performance-driven noir you can see.