The Big Clock (1948)

The Big Clock (1948) a classy and classic film noir race against the clock movie starring Ray Milland, and Charles Laughton, is a fairly unique entry in the canon.

Ray Milland is a reporter in a news corporation, tasked with solving a complex situation of his own making, and mostly set in the ultra-high-modern offices of his employer.

This newspaper office is unlike any other in film noir. The more usual film noir newspaper offices are kinda drab and somewhat realistic, and may look like those featured in Fritz Lang's While The City Sleeps (1956). The publisher's offices in The Big Clock are as uber-modern as any of the period, and the sets throughout are fascinating.

The look is dynamic, and sharp, to match the technology which was booming, burgeoning in fact into the real life media corporations that would begin their march to world domination only a few years late, in the 1950s.

The offices of The Big Clock are realistic to many of the styles of Manhattan, combing art nouveau and technology. There is however something fantastic about them, creating an unreal world of doors opening and closing, chasing through boardrooms, corridors, and elevators, all highly suggestive of a man lost in a corporate hell, a nicely manicured and created hell at that. 

Ray Milland, trapped in The Big Clock (1948)

The ideas of order are best played here, better than in any other film noir. There is a clock in the world, and business is that clock. Normally, metaphors in films can become tiring, but the clock metaphor and this rectangular building, with its circular clock, in which there is a spiral staircase, an essential film noir prop.

Ray Milland, corporate life versus marriage in The Big Clock (1948)

Maureen O'Sullivan in The Big Clock (1948)

High on the film noir roster is the sense of fatalism and the idea of being trapped, and that is certainly the case in The Big Clock. There's also the idea of mistaken identity, and of a person being framed for a crime they did not commit, all of which seems tied into the heart of this slick-looking thriller. It's normal in film noir for a good man to be framed as bad, and to be pursued as such -- and what does that tell us about American society in the 1940s?

George Macready in The Big Clock (1948)

Corporate control, double breasted suit and moustache, Charles Laughton in The Big Clock (1948)

It could be plainly put as a reflection on the events of World War Two, which was never America's fight to begin with, and which saw a previously innocent culture obliged to defend itself against a malicious and organised threat. 

All of this is framed in the most commonly-used film noir style going, which is the flashback. Like Detour (1945) and like Double Indemnity (1944), and so many others, the story of The Big Clock commences at the end and jumps back to the beginning to start again. 

Corporate office in The Big Clock (1948)

This is a medium almost specific to film noir in the 1940s. The question it answers is 'how did we get here?' and the technique creates a dramatic remove which is integral to the psychology of the storytelling. One way of looking at this is through the lens of fatalism, because we know what is going to happen, having seen the end before we watch the film. Not only that but since we know what the outcome is, we will watch our lead characters in film noir attempting to avoid their fate, thrilling us with the notion that we know they will not.

Bar room flirts, Ray Milland and Rita Johnson in The Big Clock (1948)

Another angle to the flashback concerns point of view, because in any good film noir, we are privy to whose story it is we are watching, and the psychological effect of hearing that character's voice whisper to us in the dark, details of their misadventure, is powerful in its intimacy.

The character played by Ray Milland, the innocent man on the run, communicates the fatality and horror of the situation. "How'd I get into this rat race, anyway?" he says. "I'm no criminal—what happened, when did it all start?" he asks.

Bar room antics in The Big Clock (1948)

Fun nights out on the town in The Big Clock (1949)

Ray Milland's character George Stroud is the editor of Crimeways, a periodical devoted to investigative journalism. This is a great conceit of course, anticipating some of the journalistic film noir of the 1950s, because dedication to Crimeways has made George and his team into a master trackers of wanted men who have gone into hiding. The hugeness of the corporate surroundings are a sign that already, by the later 1940s, the private sector has gotten ahead of the public one, because Crimeways has a reputation for finding criminals before the police do.

Rita Johnson in The Big Clock (1948)

The twist is of course that the skills Stroud has developed, along with the team he has assembled, will threaten his existence as a free man.

Crimeways itself is a great creation, and with it comes Airways, Styleways, Artways, Newsways, Sportways and Futureways, indicating that Janoth Publications may have commercialised every area of human interest, and made it into a form of commercial media.

Murder in light and dark, The Big Clock (1948) as film noir

The clock of the title of The Big Clock (1948) is without doubt an all-encompassing symbol of the rising commercial world in which time has been commodified and captured, and it is also the obsession of the industrialist played by Charles Laughton, as well increasingly of Ray Milland's character. The murder weapon in The Big Clock is a sundial that Ray Milland's character has purchased while drunk, along with a picture of a pair of hands, which may be suggestive of clock hands in and of themselves. Clocks appear throughout, as do discussions of and references to time. This film noir itself is a race-against-time style thriller.

Corporate men at work in The Big Clock (1948)

The inside of the clock where George hides is futuristic in its flashing lights and dials, but it also contains a spiral staircase, and is the ticking heart of business, where time is no money like never before. 

The Big Clock (1948) moments of film noir

Charles Laughton as Earl Janoth is an industrialist almost mad with power. He allows his staff a single  minute each to describe potential initiatives to him and at one point orders a man's pay cut for the failure to turn off a broom closet light bulb, as well as firing another man who objects to the use of red ink. Worse than this, and typical of the environment to come, his building is wired so he can listen to interoffice communications. Phones are handed to him, and he hands them back when the call has concluded.

Henry Morgan, Charles Laughton, Ray Milland and George Macready in
The Big Clock (1948)

Often in film noir, we'll see presented a new type of conflict too, faced by the male of course. This is the conflict between the needs of a man's family and his professional sense of purpose. Stroud's wife (Maureen O'Sullivan, wife of the film's director John Farrow) has waited five years for a proper honeymoon, simply because of George's allegiance to Crimeways. 

Crimeways is in turn owned by George's demanding boss Earl Janoth, played by Charles Laughton.  Janoth is a workaholic oligarch who insists that Stroud choose between his long overdue family vacation and his career, and promises Stroud that he will find himself blacklisted and unemployable as a journalist should he put his family requirements first. 

Less conventional relationships, and maybe even hinted at homosexual contact, is suggested between Charles Laughton's character and his two fixers, played by the scheming and controlled George Macready, and the silent and predatory Henry Morgan.

Elsa Lanchester in The Big Clock (1948)

While trying to swallow this idea a more pressing problem arrives for Milland's character in the alluring form of Pauline York (Rita Johnson), a temptress brought to him by fate. She shares his dislike for Janoth, and the two form a dangerous friendship that kicks off with a therapeutic pub crawl, which is as entertainingly shot as the office interiors.

Henry Morgan and Ray Milland in The Big Clock (1948)

Screwball comedy or film noir? Hunt in the dark in
The Big Clock (1948)

The sense of the Madison Avenue executives and their bars is wonderfully created, although the bars seem more old time than those featured in a film like While The City Sleeps, a few years later in 1956. 

The difference in style between The Big Clock, a film of the 1940s, and the collection of later journalism and media film noir, may well be television. Television was very much the enemy of film noir, in so far as it first pulled people away from the cinemas, and then without much effort, changed film making style to suit its own medium, rather than the psychological darkness favoured by the cinema. As well as being ill-suited to the shadows and darkness of film noir, television also required a safer and more mundane style of storytelling, and so cramped film noir's style further when the darkness began to lift in the 1950s.

Kill on sight in the corporate world in The Big Clock (1948)

Tellingly then, there is no televisual threat to the world of The Big Clock, where time and business rule, but where the full-on glamour of the art nouveau office and the futuristic media empire seem to offer only print as the favoured medium, and oddly with no mention either of the world of radio. 

It is still the future of working life in America that is depicted, and even if the action is somewhat light and breezy at times, the undertones of office life in the near future are unpleasant. Nobody can go home from the office, it seems, and as well as a place of capture, it is a place where identity can be mistaken, and confused. Presented starkly, Ray Milland's character is tasked by his evil boss to find none other than himself, and even though the complexity of this becomes almost farcical by the end, although it is also extremely dangerous. All staff in the building are monitored, and in the manhunt are trapped, and by the conclusion armed police stalk the corridors with orders to shoot to kill on sight.

Ray Milland - - hunter and hunted in The Big Clock (1948)

Stylistically, buffs don't tend to allow this exciting and unique looking picture into their classic film noir canon, and there are not devices and even themes of note to back up their classification. There are plot twists and turns which make it interesting, but there is a slightly wider than normal lens which distorts faces during particularly vile moments.

Charles Laughton, quivering jowel in The Big Clock (1948)

Rita Johnson - a moment of murder in The Big Clock (1948)

Drawing us away from the classification of noir, are the screwball comedy aspects. The Big Clock gets comic, even though it starts off exactly as a film noir would -  the voiceover, the flashback, the dodging peril in the darkness, and the classic set up - the hero messed up and in peril at the beginning, and then going down  . . .

Weird screwball moments do proliferate, even when the movie is at its darkest, and there are eccentrics, races against time, laughs, and lightweight ridiculousness often threatens to break in. There is also however a great film noir dream montage, around the alcohol motif. The light and goofy is there, but it pays off in later moments, as if none of this constant madness is wasted.

Alcohol and journalism montage in The Big Clock (1948)

Elsa Lanchester portrays a maddening antidote to the world of the media mogul and the egomania attached to it. The others that make up the empire display the absolutely modern attitude to corporate power, where people only like you because they are either impressed by you, or afraid of you.

Time is a theme and a murder weapon even, and is worked into the movie everywhere, from the start which begins with Ray Milland trapped inside the big clock of the title.

Film noir denouement in The Big Clock (1948) with George Macready

The world of the media empire has also split the world into many different categories, something telling. The entire empire has divided culture into brackets, and Ray Milland's character can make use of this in his manhunt. The cold sterile world of this corporation is a world of angles, with little decoration, clear and not imaginative.

The Big Clock (1948) on Wikipedia

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