The Big Clock (1948)

*. Kenneth Fearing’s 1946 novel The Big Clock is a suspense classic, not because it’s particulary well written (it isn’t), but because of its brilliant central concept: a man caught investigating himself, as part of a plot to frame him for murder.
*. Such a great idea was a lock to be made into a movie, and the film rights were actually sold before publication (based on the success of Fearing’s previous novel). But the movie very freely adapts the book in ways that are both obvious and instructive. In fact, I find this to be one of the most interesting page-to-screen transformations in Hollywood history.
*. In the first place, film being a less cerebral and more visual medium, the title of the novel, which is only a metaphor for fate, is made literal with the presence of a giant clock device in the Janoth building, not to mention countless references to clocks and the passing of time. References that I think should have been left out. Fearing’s metaphor was strained enough, but the amount of shoehorning that has to be done to introduce it here is so obvious and awkward that it gets to seem ridiculous. Not to mention the fact that there’s no payoff. Clocks have no real function in the plot. I was even unsure what the point was in the resetting of the smashed clock in Pauline’s apartment. It’s worth pointing out that on its first publication the title of the story was The Judas Picture. But The Big Clock just sounded better.
*. Another point common to most book-to-film adaptations of this period is the censoring of the source. In the novel George Stroud is clearly having an affair with Pauline Delos (the name of the Pauline York character in the movie, played by Rita Johnson). Even more shocking, Janoth kills Pauline when she accuses him, with some justification, not of having a series of affairs with his secretaries but of being his associate Hagen’s homosexual lover. Pauline, in turn, is described as bisexual. We’re less judgmental about these things in the twenty-first century, but in the 1940s this would have been a sort of behaviour too degenerate even for a heavy in a mainstream Hollywood picture. As it is, George Macready gives Hagen a slight lisp, which was probably code enough.
*. Another example of the same cleaning up is that the painter Louise Patterson (Elsa Lanchester) has a brood of children by a series of former husbands. In the book, when she is asked about the father(s) of her children and her own marital status she loudly responds that they are all love children and that she has never been married. A little too much even for a comic character in a movie.
*. The sexual politics exercised Molly Haskell, who took The Big Clock as representative in its portrayal of women in the movies of the time. They are there for “distracting not only the hero but the audience from the fun and danger.” George’s wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan) is a drag and a nag, even though the film was directed by her husband John Farrow (Mia would be one of their seven kids). “Indeed,” Haskell goes so far as to say, “the murderer (Charles Laughton) is by far a more sympathetic character than the wife.” This says something about screen vs. page values as well, as Georgette is actually a far more sympathetic character in the novel.

*. The final element in the page-to-screen transformation has to do with the ending. Fearing’s novel ends on a comically abrupt note. A hostile corporate takeover puts an end to the investigation like a deus ex machina, and a coda tells us that Janoth has committed suicide. This is hardly justice, not to mention rather dull. So here we get some gun play and a rather silly use of an elevator shaft, with some comic business involving Lanchester and one of her long-lost husbands. I don’t care much for the ending of the film, but I acknowledge something had to be done to fix what Fearing had come up with.
*. The Big Clock is not a movie that gets a lot of attention these days. Charles Laughton’s Janoth is the best thing in it, though Charles Laughton is usually the best thing in any movie he appears in. Unfortunately he’s stuck playing behind a ridiculous moustache here. Farrow fails to exploit the excellent premise for all the tension and suspense it is so rich in. Perhaps recognizing the unfulfilled potential, later remakes of the same concept — most notably Police Python 357 (1976) and No Way Out (1987) — would try to do better.
*. My response to this movie is mixed. Judged on its own it’s a solid little thriller, but given the strength of the material and the cast assembled I’m disappointed it didn’t turn out better. I don’t think the problem lies with the way Jonathan Latimer’s screenplay adapts the novel. I think it really needed a Hitchcock at the helm to milk more out of the numerous tension-filled traps in the plot. The camera work here is pedestrian, preferring to follow scenes through single long takes without focusing on the various key items that should be obsessive points of interest. This same lack of tension also led me to think Ray Milland was miscast as George. Wouldn’t he have been better as Janoth? I’m sure Laughton could have done a great turn as George if the roles were flipped. That might have been something odd and wonderful.

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