The Big Clock (Blu-ray)

May 20, 2019 10 Min Read

Review by: Jake Keet

Plot: What’s it about?

The Big Clock is the latest classic film to be released by Arrow Films. Directed by John Farrow and starring Ray Milland and Charles Laughton, The Big Clock is an interesting film that employs some great comedic and dramatic flourishes. As other commentators and reviewers have noted, the film is not a traditional noir, but more of a thinking man’s thriller with some comedic elements. In other words, The Big Clock is not easily pushed into a specific genre and stands out as fairly unique.

As the film begins, newspaper man George Stroud (Ray Milland) is in serious trouble. In a voiceover he mentions that the last couple days have put his marriage and his life in jeopardy and that a murder has occurred. As the film begins, he is evading armed guards at Janoth Publications where he works. He is making his way to the big clock that synchronizes all the clocks in the building and other publication houses of Janoth. The last couple days have presented a severe change in fortune for George. The film flashes back to two days earlier. George is working at Janoth Publications underneath his incredibly demanding boss – magnate Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton.) Janoth is obsessed with timeliness and has clocks everywhere that are connected to the big clock. George’s wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan) has patiently awaited their long put-off honeymoon since George accepted the job seven years earlier. They are returning to the small city in West Virginia where their relationship began. This trip is in danger of being interrupted by his work because George’s news team has just located a man named Fleming that had been incognito. Mr. Janoth has no intention of letting George go on vacation when he could have his circulation increase by ten percent if the story is given the proper follow-up. The night before his trip George meets a flirtatious woman named Pauline York (Rita Johnson.) The day of his trip, George is given the choice between his job and his honeymoon. He chooses his honeymoon. Janoth threatens to blackball him across the journalism circuit. George receives a phone call from Pauline saying that she has information that could help him against Janoth. George meets with Pauline and while in discussion he accidentally misses the first train with his bride. He tries to reach the train station to speak with her but she has boarded the train. Feeling dejected, George has a drunken night with Pauline. They seek out green stinger drinks, green clocks, and end up purchasing a piece of art by an artist named Paterson and a sundial. George gets plastered. Pauline wakes up George from her couch and shoos him out of her place because Janoth is coming up to her place. Janoth sees George’s shape but can’t quite make him out. Inside her apartment, Pauline insults Janoth and he kills her with the sundial that had been brought back from Burt’s Bar. Janoth phones his right-hand man Steve Hagen (George Macready,) and they begin trying to frame the man who had been with Pauline that night. She had said his name was Randolph Jefferson. George receives a phone call from Janoth after arriving to his honeymoon.  George is asked to track down himself, unbeknownst to Janoth or Steve.

The Big Clock is a fun thriller thanks to some clever plot mechanics. The film was guided by three writers. It was an adaptation by Jonathan Latimer of a novel by Kenneth Fearing. The director John Farrow was a notable writer of other projects like Around the World In 80 Days. This lends to the film having a strong narrative pull with a lot of enjoyable dialogue. The banter between the characters is fast and loose because they are in the news business and the dialogue is frequently subversive and funny. The film also has some striking cinematography. The opening sequence, in particular, looks fantastic.

What makes the film work is that the hero(?) of the film really does make a big mistake in hanging out with Pauline that night and the tension between balancing his relationship with his wife and keeping his identity secret from his boss is very well done. Also, the acting in the film is pretty great. Ray Milland turns in a good performance as George – his face exuding stress for the duration of the film – but the film belongs to Charles Laughton. Laughton brings a levity to every line of dialogue and is slyly funny. The scene in which he loses it and kills Pauline is excellently done and sets him up as a strong villain. The only mechanism of the film that I thought was overreaching was the henchman character named Bill Womack played by Harry Morgan. While I thought the dynamic between Janoth and Bill was great onscreen, I could not get over the fact that it is not very likely that a publisher would employ a thug on a regular basis. That is a pretty minor grievance considering all the high notes of the film.

Video: How’s it look?

The transfer provided to Arrow Video by Universal looks pretty good but has some issues. Here is what the booklet details:

The Big Clock is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 [sic] with 1.0 mono audio. The master was prepared in High Definition by Universal Pictures and delivered to Arrow Films.“

With the transfer appearing in 1.34.1, there will be some bars on both sides of the screen on most televisions. The video transfer for the most part looks good due to solid fine detail. The issues arise from the source. There is a lot of flickering and there are visible scratches and debris. For me, the flickering was at times somewhat distracting. At the same time, I cannot imagine that the film has ever looked better. I just wish that the print had been cleaned up a bit more before they put the release out.

Audio: How’s it sound?

The LPCM Mono track that Universal provided to Arrow sounds pretty good. Dialogue is clear and though there is persistent hiss it was not distracting. This will not end up being your demo track for your sound system, but it has been cleaned up sufficiently enough.

Supplements: What are the extras?

  • Audio Commentary – Adrian Martin provides an informative and enjoyable track with lots of good information on director John Farrow and the source novel.
  • Turning Back the Clock – Adrian Wootton discusses the elements of comedy and noir that influence the unique style of The Big Clock. The background info given on the novel and adaptation helps open up the film even more. Worth checking out.
  • A Difficult Actor – Actor Simon Callow, who wrote a book on Laughton, discusses the life and career of Charles Laughton. This is an excellent appreciation of the actor and one-time director with a good discussion of his work in The Big Clock. This is a great piece.
  • Lux Radio Theater: The Big Clock – A 1948 radio adaptation of the film starring Ray Milland.
  • Theatrical Trailer 
  • Image Gallery 

The Bottom Line

The Big Clock is a fun thriller with an excellent sense for dialogue and humor. With both Ray Milland and Charles Laughton in top form, the film is an easy recommendation. The transfer of the film supplied by Universal to Arrow could have been cleaned up some more, but the film still looked nice overall. The supplements supplied by Arrow are well-researched and enjoyable. Overall, this is well worth your time

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