Another classic thriller gets the Blu-ray treatment, and this one is a real treat. Presented here in stunning HD for the Arrow Academy, John Farrow‘s The Big Clock is an overlooked film noir gem. Remade in 1987 as No Way Out, (which itself features one of the ballsiest low-key twists in cinema history) The Big Clock still remains the preferred film. It’s more streamlined and punchier, and somehow feels less dated despite being made nearly 40 years earlier.
The plot is labyrinthine but ingeniously constructed. When media mogul Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) murders his mistress in a jealous rage, he tries to pin it on the man he saw with her, putting his top crime journalist George Stroud (Ray Milland) on the case. Unbeknown to Janoth, the man he saw was actually George, who must now use every means at his disposal to exonerate himself and expose the real murderer.
What sets this film apart is its unique plot. It’s brilliantly executed, and the sense of dread as the net tightens around George is palpable. It only stumbles towards the end where the climax feels slightly rushed. It also features some imaginative, crisp cinematography, and surprisingly mobile camerawork for the period, moving in and around the actors really fluidly.
Ray Milland makes a charming, self-assured lead, and as the film goes on he utilises his sharp features and wide eyes to great effect, appearing more and more desperate. He is shown to be resourceful, and (as with all noir protagonists) morally ambiguous. It shows the situation is so dire that he has to resort to breaking, entering and bribery to clear his name, which creates a much more nuanced character.
Charles Laughton is also a joy to watch as the tyrannical, time-obsessed boss. He is utterly convincing as both the arrogant CEO and the sweaty, desperate murderer, and remains utterly human throughout. This is what I love about film noir, the way it highlights these singularly human traits that ultimately provide the villains’ downfall. Laughton plays both his self-importance and his desperation brilliantly, as he is brought down by his own hubris. There is a nice parallel between Janoth and the eponymous clock; his life runs like clockwork, and it’s only when the clock breaks down that he loses his composure and starts to come unravelled himself.
The supporting cast are excellent, featuring Maureen O’Sullivan, George Macready, Harry Morgan and Elsa Lanchester, the latter being wonderful as a dotty artist. The rest of the journalists are played by a great ensemble, reminiscent of the reporters from His Girl Friday. It helps that the snappy dialogue is worthy of Hawks and Wilder; playful, witty and genuinely funny in places. This can work to the film’s detriment though, as the comedy is sometimes at odds with the more suspenseful elements. The final little coda is admittedly sweet, but does undermine the sinister tone somewhat.
A lightweight film noir with an original premise, some great performances and stark cinematography, The Big Clock is a fun film that gets better with every repeat viewing. It might not have the dark, brooding menace of some of the more revered examples of the genre, but what the film lacks in atmosphere it makes up for in a tightly plotted story. It moves along breezily, and ratchets up the suspense right until the climax.
Arrow never disappoint with special features, and this is no exception, featuring an in-depth analysis of the film by Adrian Wootton and an entertaining look at Charles Laughton‘s career by Simon Callow, as well as a host of other extras.