Friday, February 13, 2009

Tonight's Movie: The Big Clock (1948)

THE BIG CLOCK is a very stylish murder mystery starring Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan, and Rita Johnson.

Milland plays George Stroud, the hardworking editor of Crimeways Magazine. George is at the beck and call of his tyrannical publisher, Earl Janoth (Laughton), which makes George's long-suffering wife (O'Sullivan) none too happy. She's been waiting five years to take their honeymoon trip!

One fateful night George misses meeting his wife for a train trip and drowns his sorrows alongside Janoth's mistress Pauline (Johnson). The next day Pauline turns up dead, and the clues uncovered by the Crimeways staff increasingly point to George as Pauline's murderer. George finds himself in a race against time to clear his name and find the real killer.

THE BIG CLOCK is a bit slow out of the starting gate, but on the whole is an engrossing mystery. I found the plot thread regarding George disappointing his wife a bit tiresome and also found Laughton's affectations a bit much, such as constantly touching his mustache. However, the film gets more interesting as it goes along and has many positives in its favor, starting with the always-enjoyable Ray Milland as a man with a major crisis on his hands. On the whole it's a very worthwhile film, which I'll be watching again at some point in order to more fully absorb the many twists and turns of the plot.

The movie's outstanding set design is a worthy reason to see the film in and of itself. I loved the glimpses of various magazines -- Artways, Airways, Sportways -- as Milland's elevator makes stops on the way to the Crimeways floor. The names of the magazines on posts in the magazine's dock area are also very striking, as are the individual offices. And of course, there's the title clock, which has to be seen to be believed.

Two married couples worked on the film. Charles Laughton's wife, Elsa Lanchester, has a marvelous supporting role as a ditzy artist with a houseful of children. Her role lightens the tension at just the right moments, and she has the funniest line in the film. Actress Maureen O'Sullivan, who has a small but effective role as George's wife, was married to the film's director, John Farrow. They had seven children, including Mia Farrow.

The excellent supporting cast includes Harry Morgan (a nonspeaking role as Laughton's silently menacing bodyguard), Dan Tobin, and George Macready.

Rita Johnson, who plays the murder victim, had a solid career including appearances in HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (1941) and Milland's THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942). She appeared in many MGM films of the '30s, including MY DEAR MISS ALDRICH (1937), which starred O'Sullivan, and RICH MAN, POOR GIRL (1938). She only acted sporadically after suffering a major concussion and having brain surgery in 1948.

THE BIG CLOCK was shot in black and white and runs 95 minutes. It inspired the 1987 Kevin Costner film NO WAY OUT, in which the mystery was transferred to the Pentagon.

THE BIG CLOCK is available on DVD and video. The only extra on the DVD is a trailer; the trailer's presentation is a bit unique in that it features Ray Milland previewing his role on a "radio show."

The movie has also been shown on Turner Classic Movies.

2015 Update: I had a great experience seeing this film at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, California.

2019 Update: This film is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy. My review of the Blu-ray is here.


Blogger Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

...and that show is "radio's outstanding theatre of thrills: Suspense!" I love the trailer for this film, though I have never been able to ascertain the Suspense connection.

I like this movie a lot; I'll admit it's not a particularly great film but since I've always been a big Charles Laughton fan (as well as an admirer of Ms. O'Sullivan's) it has a special pull on me. I sort of run hot-and-cold where Milland is concerned, but this is clearly one of his very best vehicles.

As for Johnson, I really enjoyed her in Jordan--which was on TCM yesterday and is in my viewing queue (I've seen it before, but it's been a while and I thought it was worth a revisit). Throw in Elsa Lanchester, Harry Morgan and George Macready into the mix and you have one heck of an entertaining mystery!

Okay, I'll throw a bit of water on myself to keep from being too enthusiastic. Nice write-up, Laura!

1:46 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Glad you could jump in with your radio knowledge, Ivan! Very interesting info.

Like you, I haven't seen HERE COMES MR. JORDAN in a long time and hope to see if fairly soon. Since first seeing it (in an L.A. revival theater, the Vagabond, many moons ago) I've become a major Robert Montgomery fan so I'm especially looking forward to seeing it again.

Glad to find someone else who has enjoyed THE BIG CLOCK. (I also like Maureen O'Sullivan a great deal; she made my "20 Favorite Actresses" list -- while Milland made my Favorite Actors list.) Despite its flaws it was memorable and had many excellent moments which will cause me to watch it again.

Best wishes,

2:41 PM  
Blogger Samuel Wilson said...

Add me to the Big Clock fan list. I also recently recommended it to a friend who thanked me afterward. If liking both this film and His Kind of Woman is enough to make me a John Farrow fan, then so be it.

9:12 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for your note, Samuel. I enjoyed HIS KIND OF WOMAN -- or at least most of it -- as well.

Best wishes,

11:33 PM  
Blogger Missy said...

I caught this on TCM a while back. It's a good movie, but seemed slightly off some how. And I seem to remember the ending having a hole in it, but I don't want to say here and be a spoiler.

Glad you enjoyed it too.


7:33 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I've been doing some research on Rita Johnson and it seems that the major brain injury of 1948, which disabled her and her career, may very well have been inflicted by her then-fiance, Broderick Crawford, a one-time boxer known for "knocking out his darlings," a quotation from a well-known gossip columnist. The next year Crawford won the Oscar for All the King's Men. Hollywood cover-ups were legion at that time and I feel so sad for poor Rita Johnson, who died at the age of 52 in 1965.

3:20 PM  
Anonymous Janet said...

Laura, thank you for printing my comment. The research I did on Rita Johnson was taken from an article by Matt Weinstock, entitled, "The Booby-Trapped Life of Rita Johnson." The gossip columnist that hinted Rita's brain injury wasn't really caused by a falling hair dryer, but by Broderick, was Walter Wynchell, quite famous himself.

8:46 AM  

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