The Big Clock (1948)

Poster for The Big Clock with giant eye looming over Ray Milland who looms over a shapely woman’s body under a coffee table

THE BIG CLOCK (1948) is another John Farrow-directed noir(ish) and quite a bit snappier overall than NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES, though less interesting beyond that slick surface — but what a surface! Milland and Laughton of course, and a criminally underused O’Sullivan, but the shine is in the supporting cast who really give the film life. I haven’t read the novel and don’t feel deeply motivated to do so, but I could be wrong (if you’ve read it, let me know).

Laughton and Macready contemplate how to destroy the lives of others

Of course this film inspired one of my fave Coen Bros films, the criminally underrated Hudsucker Proxy (1994), which also features a big clock and has a lot more laughs yet a lot of the same tensions and suspense. Milland manages to do smug without alienating the audience because you know he’s going to screw up — hence the continuously dumped-on wife played by O’Sullivan who not only gets let down repeatedly by her husband but is also treated with contempt by his boss and the organisation. Nonetheless she rallies to his defence impeccably because that’s what mid-20C wives apparently do.

Laughton is a delight to watch seethe through his clock-obsessed control freak who can’t sustain any blows to his ego because as we have seen amply in recent times, men are just too emotional to hold positions of power. Rita Johnson gets the thankless task of the ill-fated mistress who at least gets one night of fun carousing with Milland, whose wife left on the train for the delayed honeymoon he promised to make this time. When murder happens, the tried and true crime solving techniques that Milland has used to make his magazine a success for the ungrateful Laughton suddenly bite him in ass because he’s inadvertently become the number one suspect. The suspense comes in part from trying to foil the crack team he has taught every trick to — and later from being trapped in successively smaller circles within the building.

The Crimeways Clue Chart blackboard

Here is where the film shines: every character part is interesting. In a film where lots of places are quickly visited and lots of people introduced, you can remember them all. They’re distinct. I spend a lot of time in recent films asking who’s that? because they are all alike in their bland beauty. In addition to fab character actors like Dan Tobin and George Macready, there’s Harry (then Henry) Morgan as the chilling ‘fixer’ for Laughton’s executive who really makes you shiver with his dead-eye look.

And of course there is my favourite part: Elsa Lanchester as an eccentric surrealist artist. As I said on Twitter the other day, she can do more in two minutes than some actors can do in an entire film. She lets you see a slice of the lived life of this hilarious and yet completely believable woman. Also a stark reminder that supporting the arts can save your life! Also, can’t beat her sketch of the suspect:

Elsa shows off her sketch while Dan Tobin looks askance

A fun romp of a film well worth revisiting if you’ve not seen in while (or ever). There’s probably a good meditation on the elasticity and precarities of time in here somewhere but I’m on holiday so you’re not getting it to me. So many clocks…