Based on the novel of the same name by Kenneth Fearing, “The Big Clock” (1948) is a suspense thriller revolving around a magazine editor and investigator named George (Ray Milland), who has been hired by his less than compassionate boss, Janoth (Charles Laughton), to investigate a man, whom Janoth believes is having an affair with his girlfriend (Rita Johnson). Problems quickly arise as George realizes that he is the man that he has been hired to find, even though he is innocent of any wrong-doing (other than making a few stupid decisions). George is forced to continue the search (for himself), while juggling his aggravating boss, his suspecting wife (Maureen O’Sullivan), and while trying to find the real criminal on his own.
Somewhat surprisingly, “The Big Clock” is a pretty decent suspense thriller. The story has a couple of holes and “convenient coincidences”, but once those are put aside, everything falls into place nicely. The screenplay by Jonathan Latimer keeps things moving at a pace that is easy to follow, without ever dragging. It builds slowly until the final twenty minutes when the suspense completely takes over, catching the audience almost by surprise.
Director John Farrow directs without any pomp and circumstance, allowing the script and story to control the film. He also lets his group of actors do their own thing, and when you have a group like this, that works best anyway. Ray Milland is perfectly cast, reminiscent of his performance in the Fritz Lang thriller, “Ministry of Fear” (1944). Here, Milland recaptures that suspense-filled magic, and he plays the “wrong man” character extremely well. He’s easy to root for, and his sense of humor gives him the feel of an old friend that you’re always excited to see.
Charles Laughton is also very good, although the part isn’t huge. He makes a superb villain, and he and Milland seem like a couple of guys who could go head to head anytime. Rita Johnson and Maureen O’Sullivan perform well in their limited roles, O’Sullivan coming out of retirement to work with her husband, director John Farrow. Once again, neither of these ladies have much screen time, but they get their jobs done despite it being Milland’s film. If you want to talk about a scene stealer, however, we have one of those too in the amazingly talented Elsa Lanchester. She plays a painter who can identify George, but for whatever reason, chooses to help him instead. She is hilarious, and one major downside to this film is that Lanchester doesn’t have a larger part.
The real highlight of “The Big Clock” is in the preconceived notions that you might have going into the film. Even the title suggests a “B” movie feel, but it deserves more credit than that. It’s pieced together nicely with a noir appearance without being quite so dark and dreary. It actually feels like the type of film that Alfred Hitchcock could have made, which would have made it a more remembered film today. John Farrow, however, rises to the challenge and delivers a masterfully conceived picture that delivers on every level.