KENNETH FEARING – The Big Clock. Harcourt Brace, hardcover, 1946. A condensed version first appeared in The American Magazine, October 1946, as “The Judas Picture.” Reprinted many times, including Bantam #738, paperback, 1949; and in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s, Library of America, hardcover, 1997. Also published as No Way Out (Perennial, paperback, 1987).

THE BIG CLOCK. Paramount Pictures, 1948. Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, George Macready, Rita Johnson, Elsa Lanchester Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer, based on the novel by Kenneth Fearing. Director: John Farrow.

   The other day I was in the re-reading mode, and pulled Kenneth Fearing’s 1946 novel The Big Clock off the shelf. It was well worth going back to. Clock is built very nicely around a clever gimmick that sustains it as a thriller, but there’s an undercurrent — a very subtle one — that surfaces now and again to hint that there’s more going on here than we think.

   George Stroud starts off the novel as a thoughtful hedonist; he enjoys books, paintings, colorful characters, his family, a comfortable job editing a crime magazine, good liquor and the occasional affair. One of these affairs is with Pauline Delos, the mistress of his publisher, Earl Janoth, and when Stroud is seen-but-not-recognized leaving Pauline’s place, it precipitates an argument that results in Janoth murdering Pauline.

   What follows is not so much a cat-and-mouse game as a perverse dance: Janoth sets the resources of his publishing empire to the task of finding the man seen leaving Pauline’s apartment, seeking to implicate him in the murder, and chooses Stroud to head up the search; Stroud realizes that Janoth must have killed their mutual bed-partner, but he also knows that saying so would destroy his marriage and career — and if Janoth learns Stroud’s secret, he’ll destroy more than that.

   Okay, that’s the plot gimmick: a man set to catch himself, trying to avoid getting caught, and Fearing exploits it very ably, with Stroud’s maneuvers getting ever more intricate, always quicker, as the dance picks up tempo and the net tries to close around him.

   But there’s more here: those subtle roilings below the surface; multiple narrators tell the tale, mostly Stroud, but also Janoth, his sycophantic henchman Hagen — there‘s a telling bit where Hagen wonders why anyone would buy an old painting at an antique shoppe — and there’s an oddly moving chapter narrated by Stroud’s wife, where we glimpse just how much harm Stroud’s pleasure-seeking can do.

   And then there’s the Big Clock: Fearing’s metaphor for a life without soul, a society whose unrelenting gears can brush a man or crush him: “I could beat the machine. The super-clock would go on forever; it was too massive to be stopped. But it had no brains and I did. I could escape from it. Let Janoth and Hagen perish in its wheels. They loved it.”

   But later: “I told myself it was just a tool, a vast machine, and the machine was blind. But I had not fully realized its crushing weight and power. That was insane. The machine cannot be challenged. It both creates and blots out, doing each with glacial impersonality. It measures people in the same way that it measures money, and the growth of trees, the life-span of mosquitoes and morals, the advance of time. And when the hour strikes on the big clock, that is indeed the hour, the day, the correct time. When it says a man is right, he is right, and when it finds him wrong, he is through, with no appeal.”

   Good stuff, that. And the wrap-up is equally strong. Ostensibly a happy ending, but with loose ends that keep threatening to unravel. And a final line that hits with memorable brutality. This is a thriller written by a poet, and it’s worth a look. Or two.

   Paramount filmed this in 1948, and they did a pretty creditable job of it, with typically smooth direction by John Farrow, and pluperfect performances from Ray Milland as Stroud, Charles Laughton as Janoth, icy George Macready as Hagen, and Maureen O’Sullivan (Farrow’s wife) as the long-suffering Mrs. Stroud.

   There’s also a ticklish turn by Elsa Lanchester (Laughton’s wife) as a dotty artist, and a chilling bit from Henry Morgan (Nobody’s wife) as Jeff, Laughton’s silent masseur/gunman. Jeff doesn’t speak throughout the film, but one gets the odd impression it’s because he simply sees no point in it, a neat dramatic evocation — along with arid sets and clockwork-cold line readings from Laughton and Macready — of Fearing’s subtext.

   I might add, though, that Jonathan Latimer’s screen adaptation rings some necessary-for-movies-of-that-time changes on Fearing’s story: the affair with Janoth’s mistress is replaced by an over-complicated marital mix-up that makes Stroud seem more Dagwood than Don Juan. And in the book, Janoth begins the quarrel leading up to the murder by taunting his mistress about a lesbian affair, then flies into a rage when she accuses him of “camping” with the fawning Hagen — whereupon he kills her, and later, justifying the murder to Hagen, the first thing he mentions is her bisexuality. Fearing makes the point subtly (no doubt he had to in those days) but he leaves the strong impression that this murder is more a crime of intolerance than passion.

   Well all that’s gone in the movie, replaced by more conventional stuff while director Farrow and writer Latimer drop subtle hints here and there, and though one mourns the loss a bit, I have to say no one improved things any when they re-made the story (as No Way Out) in the more permissive 1980s.