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Blu-ray: The Big Clock | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: The Big Clock

Blu-ray: The Big Clock

Brilliantly constructed comedy noir, ripe for rediscovery

Chasing lost time (though not a whole weekend): Ray Milland

John Farrow’s inexplicably neglected 1948 thriller The Big Clock is a difficult work to pigeonhole, combining traces of noir, screwball comedy and suspense. Farrow’s source material was a novel by poet and pulp fiction writer Kenneth Fearing, here adapted by crime author and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer. Visually it’s spectacular, the first establishing shot moving from a dark New York skyline to the interior of the art deco Janoth Building in (almost) one single take, showing us Ray Milland’s George Stroud taking refuge inside the titular timepiece. It’s a flashback, and there’s a first-person narration, though neither noir-ish device is used again. An innocent man trying to preserve his own life, Stroud is investigating himself for a murder he’s not responsible for, the killing really committed by his boss, oleaginous media magnate Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton).

Stroud, the editor of Janoth’s Crimeways magazine, is desperate to have a month off so that he can finally enjoy a delayed honeymoon with wife Maureen O’Sullivan. Janoth’s insistence that he cancel sets in train a series of events leading to the death of Janoth's mistress (Rita Johnson). Which leads to frenzied multi-tasking on Stroud’s part, as he attempts to lead the manhunt on behalf of the magazine and incriminate Janoth whilst keeping himself in the clear, a task made harder as witnesses who saw him out on the tiles with the murder victim come forward.

The Big Clock coverThere’s a Hitchcockian moment as Stroud reads a report of the killer’s appearance and realises it matches his own, prompting him to bury his hat in a waste-paper basket. Murder apart, this is a witty black comedy, with a scene-stealing turn from Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester as a ditzy painter instructed to draw an artist’s impression of the killer. Look out too for Janoth’s lurking, mute henchman, as quick to retrieve his master’s empty glass as he is to deliver a stress-relieving back massage. (The 1987 remake of the film, No Way Out, starring Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman, played up thriller tension over comedy and added a political context, complete with Cold War elements.)

Plotwise, it runs like, er, clockwork, but The Big Clock’s chief delights are visual. Farrow’s elaborate set impresses, the gleaming entrance lobby brilliantly used. Frequent long takes look fresh 70 years on, notably one at the start of a crucial bar scene. Farrow’s crowd scenes are choreographed with such care: it’s like watching a documentary. Marvel too at the elevator sequence, the doors opening on successive floors to reveal a different set each time.

Arrow Academy’s HD transfer gleams, and the extras make a persuasive case for buying the disc instead of streaming the film. Adrian Wootton’s off-the-cuff appreciation is fun, and Adrian Martin’s commentary oozes insight and affection. Self-confessed "Laughton buff" (the star's biographer, too) Simon Callow reveals that the onscreen tension between Laughton and Milland was fuelled by Milland’s own homophobia. A 1948 radio adaptation, commissioned by the Lux Radio Theatre, is hokey fun once you’ve got past the soap selling. Mix yourself a Stinger and enjoy.

Ray Milland’s Stroud is investigating himself for a murder he didn't commit


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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