Killing Time

One of the best of the 1940’s Paramount noirs, 1948’s THE BIG CLOCK, directed by John Farrow and costarring Ray Milland and Charles Laughton, gets a dynamite 1080p High Def transfer, thanks to the noiristas at Arrow Video/MVDvisual/Universal Pictures.

An authentically unique thriller, THE BIG CLOCK was based on a novel by poet Kenneth Fearing.  The idea of a poet delving into noir is not only a perfect marriage, but concurrently asks “What took this dark turn so long?” and “Why hasn’t it been done more often?”  Indeed, thanks to genre specialist screenwriter Jonathan Latimer (with uncredited assist from Harold Goldman), CLOCK retains much of its sinister strangeness that permeated the Fearing sourcework.  The characters’ names alone are bizarre reminders that this isn’t going to be your standard shadow box epic.  The main protagonist is George, his wife is Georgette and their son (who’d have seen this coming?), George, Jr.  The uninspired christening doesn’t detract from the fact that George and Georgette are a smart, perceptive couple – a match so integral to the twists and spirals of this complicated suspense ride.

To be clear, the aforementioned Gs are experiencing some trouble-in-paradise marriage probs, due to George’s boss constantly pulling him away from domestic bliss and into extracurricular activities at the magazine where he is employed.  George was a top journalist for a West Virginia newspaper, lured to the big city of New York to edit Crimeways, a sleuthing publication, devoted to real-life cases.  Crimeways is part of an empire, owned and fastidiously operated by the fetish-fueled sociopathic mind of founder Earl Janoth.  Janoth is an uncaring, arrogant monster who rules his mag domain (housed in a mammoth-Janoth Manhattan office building) like a mad king.  Crimeways is only one floor of an ongoing library of periodicals, weeklies and monthlies covering all aspects of 1940’s living: Newsways, Futureways…you get it.

Janoth’s proudest achievement is his commissioning a humongous clock for the gargantuan lobby – an imposing timepiece that can efficiently chronicle the correct global 24-hour cycles within a half-second.  Should it ever go off, the handler is fired.  Should Janoth ever go off, the result is murder.

During an early, prickly NYC summer, Earl Janoth goes off.

On a particular steamy night, model Pauline York, the magnate’s longtime mistress, having had enough of a walking-on-eggshell relationship, lets loose, chides her lover’s girth – then his limited lovemaking skills; she is bashed to death for her honesty.  Earlier, York had encountered George at a posh Eastside bar; George was drowning his sorrows, as yet another long-planned vacation with his family has been once again deep-sixed by his employer’s demands.  Neither knows that each is acquainted with Janoth.  Now one is dead, and the other is a nameless suspect seen talking with her in a popular watering hole.

Janoth manipulates the “mystery man” info into a company contest, goading George to make Crimeways hunt and capture the murderer.  George reluctantly acquiesces, sprinkling false clues away from himself before inching closer to the truth – and the real killer.  The cat-and-mouse politics become incredibly tense as the passions heat up between George’s smart coworkers (who, too, are capable of eventually fingering their immediate editor-boss…and/or the overall BIG boss).  These include Steve Hagen, Janoth’s gay right-hand toady (albeit a calculatingly erudite one), savvy writers Klausmeyer, Nat, Lily, Bert and Sid, a strange androgynous bodyguard Bill, and eventually even Georgette who cuts her interrupted marriage spat short and heads toward George’s office for a lip-biting final act.  Key to this mystery, too, is the eccentric avant-garde artist, Patterson, a freakish single mom of a brood of illegitimate sprouts, sired from different paramours – whose paintings both George and the late Pauline admired.

It all tightens to the breaking point like an over-wound mainspring for a genuinely breathtaking climax that indeed does involve the big clock.

THE BIG CLOCK was directed with great panache by the talented John Farrow, who worked quite well with Milland (one really needs to check out their horror-noir Alias Nick Beal, hopefully available at some juncture on Blu-Ray).  True to the noir world, the movie contains some terrific camera acrobatics, great use of long takes and an amazing tracking Expressionistic opening miniature/live-action hybrid. CLOCK was practically a family affair with Farrow directing wife Maureen O’Sullivan (as Georgette) and with Janoth and Patterson, portrayed by husband-and-wife duo Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, the latter in one of her finest roles (still don’t know how Paramount evaded the censors with bits about her character’s lifestyle).  Other stellar cast members include the great George Macready (as Hagen), Rita Johnson as Pauline (a nice change from the harpy she played opposite Milland in Wilder’s Major and the Minor, also available from Arrow), plus Harry Morgan, Harold Vermilyea, Richard Webb, Frank Orth, Douglas Spencer, Luis Van Rooten, Elaine Riley, Margaret Field, Phil Van Zandt, Harry Rosenthal, James Burke, Theresa Harris, and Lloyd Corrigan (who, without revealing anything more, gets the last laugh).

Arrow’s new High Def transfer of THE BIG CLOCK is the best I’ve ever seen, and shimmers with 35MM detail and excellent contrast, showcasing John Seitz’s and Daniel L. Fapp’s superb moody monochrome photography.  An excellent Victor Young score compliments the proceedings on the pic’s mono track.

Arrow always gives collectors bang for their buck, and THE BIG CLOCK is no exception.  Extras on the platter include a 1948 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast edition, also featuring Milland, a filmed appreciation of Charles Laughton’s performance as Janoth by Simon Callow, the trailer and  promotional materials, audio commentary by Adrian Martin, and Turning Back the Clock, a new documentary on the pic by British critic Adrian Wootton.

A must for every noir library, THE BIG CLOCK never ceases to deliver (dare I say) time and time again.

THE BIG CLOCK.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 PCM MA.  Arrow Video/MVDvisual/Universal Pictures. CAT # AA047.  SRP: $39.95.

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