Sat 28 Feb 2009
THE BIG CLOCK. Paramount, 1948. Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, George Macready, Rita Johnson, Elsa Lanchester, Harry Morgan, with uncredited appearances by Noel Neill and Ruth Roman. Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer, based on the novel by Kenneth Fearing. Director: John Farrow.
I’ve not read the book, or at least not so recently that I remember reading it, but from what I have been able to tell, the movie follows the text fairly closely — except for one thing. In the movie George Stroud, the highly successful editor of a true crime magazine, does not go to bed with the woman whose murder he finds himself framed for.
Otherwise the story apparently stays very much the same. The big kicker in both the book and the movie is that Stroud is put in charge of the ensuing investigation; that is, of finding the “killer,” himself, by his publisher, Earl Janoth, who in actuality — and in a sudden burst of abhorrence — really did commit the murder. The dead woman was Janoth’s mistress, and their relationship had been going sour for several weeks.
If I’m wrong about the book, let me know, but Jonathan Latimer’s screenplay can stand on its own, regardless. Ray Milland plays George Stroud, a very capable, self-assured fellow, but a very foolish guy in hanging around with Pauline York (Rita Johnson) when he has a wife (Maureen O’Sullivan) who is still waiting for a honeymoon after seven years of marriage.
Milland is very good as the man who finds himself more and more trapped in a web partly of his own making, as his own team of reporters continues to close in on him at Jaroth’s command.
Even better is Charles Laughton as that very same fastidious publisher, prig and interminably stuffy, a haughty person obsessed with time and efficiency and minimal cost, only to startle himself (momentarily) into becoming a normal person afraid of being caught at something he later can’t comprehend having done.
Maureen O’Sullivan doesn’t have a lot to do as Georgette Stroud, only to nag him (and rightfully so) and then stand beside him (at last) when he needs her most. Most viewers call this a classic noir film, and even if you haven’t seen it yourself, I hope my description of it will have you nodding your head and saying yes.
Occasionally disrupting the dark and desperate mood, though, are a few moments of comic relief, mostly (but not solely) at the hands of Elsa Lancester as a wacky, bohemian artist with a flat full of kids who can identify Stroud, but for (very good) reasons of her own, decides not to.
I certainly didn’t mind the comic interludes, but I wonder if purist noir aficionados do. The ending is a doubly happy one (I think), preceded by some very good detective work. Most entertaining, with emphasis on the “most.”
I watched this movie about several weeks ago, and I just watched it again before writing up these comments. I enjoyed it immensely both times, but there is a lot going on in this movie that I haven’t even begun to mention, and it takes more than one watching to appreciate it all.
I have it penciled in on my calendar to see it again in about a month from now.
PostScript: Ray Milland, Jonathan Latimer and director John Farrow teamed up at least one other time in Alias Nick Beal (1949), which I reviewed here last summer.