Arrow Video: The Big Clock (1948) - Reviewed

Writer-director John Farrow, much like his contemporary Robert Wise, was a jack of all trades during the Golden Age of Hollywood having written twenty-six features and directed many more.  Having worked for Paramount and RKO Pictures as a screenwriter, the Australian-born filmmaker eventually found work in Hollywood as a director for Warner Brothers, RKO, and of course Paramount.  During his tenure at Paramount he directed a number of film noir thrillers, the most well known of which arguably being his very first stab at the subgenre with the 1948 murder mystery The Big Clock 

Based on the novel of the same name by Kenneth Fearing and one of three cinematic adaptations of the story, the other two being Police Python 357 in 1976 and No Way Out in 1987, director Farrow’s take on the material is widely regarded as the most faithful to the source material and prominently features Academy Award winner Ray Milland in the leading role.  A highly suspenseful and visually hyper-stylistic chase thriller and detective story racing against the clock, we find Crimeways magazine editor George Stroud (Milland) fighting for his reputation as well as his life when he becomes embroiled in a murder plot involving his ex-employer Earl Janoth’s (Charles Laughton) mistress.

The first thing that stands out immediately about The Big Clock is the dynamic camerawork by Daniel L. Fapp and John Seitz.  Coupled with superimpositions, rear projections combined with the zoom lens to give the impression of a deep telephoto shot alongside elaborate crane and dolly shots, this is a noir thriller that doesn’t look or feel like many of those which arrived before it.  While many can pinpoint the tropes of film noir from miles away such as dark, smoky alleyways, characters in peril sneaking around their assassins and the many twists and turns that tend to follow in the time-honored tradition of convoluted noir, they come in a manner that feels experimental and full of free camera movement.  Though some of the rear projections do show their age, The Big Clock was obviously ahead of the curve technically speaking.

The soundtrack by Around the World in 80 Days Academy Award winning composer Victor Young is as tense and as nerve wracking as anything in composer Bernard Herrmann’s eclectic discography of film scores.  Often emphasizing quiet dread and mounting tension, especially during the cat-and-mouse hide and seek sequences with Stroud doing all he can to evade both authorities as well as deadly assassins hot on his tail.  Coupled with the film’s visual sense, sonically speaking The Big Clock is among the creepier film noir soundtracks of the genre.

And of course there are the performances with the ever villainous and intimidating Charles Laughton as Stroud’s piggish and domineering boss who may have more to do with the murder plot than he leads on.  Ray Milland, having copped an Oscar years earlier with Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend is superb as the resourceful and confident hero of the film, constantly thinking his way out of increasingly dangerous predicaments while holding his head high in the face of injustices as well as unwanted advances from a certain mistress.  Years earlier, director John Farrow married recurring Tarzan actress Maureen O’Sullivan and took a six year hiatus from acting before returning to the silver screen in her husband’s 1948 film to play George Stroud’s wife Georgette.  Much like George, Georgette is his equal and quick to take him to task when he finds himself drawn deeper into his profession than in the arms of his wife.

Among the more genuinely suspenseful nail biters of the film noir subgenre as well as one of the most technically innovative, The Big Clock is a prime example of top tier filmmaking and a tension filled thriller.  Proving to be a tale that would stand the test of time, as aforementioned the story was revisited and updated twice.  With the 1976 film Police Python 357, the setting is changed to the Orleans Police Department in France while the third 1987 film jumps into the US Department of Defense during the Cold War.  While the newer adaptations are themselves solid examples of genre filmmaking, of the three the closest to the book is of course the first adaptation and remains a testament to what you can do with film noir.

- Andrew Kotwicki