Sync Your Watches To The Big Clock, A Screwball Noir From Arrow Films

by Rachel Bellwoar

After five years (at least, since that’s the age of their son, George Jr. (BJ Norman)), it’s about time George (Ray Milland) and his wife, Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan) had their honeymoon. When it looks like George’s boss, Janoth (a moustache stroking Charles Laughton) is going to postpone his vacation again, George decides to quit but doesn’t leave town fast enough. After spending a night on the town with Janoth’s mistress, Pauline (Rita Johnson), George joins his wife in West Virginia but is called back by a new assignment from Janoth. He’s looking for the man who was with Pauline and it’s up to George to make sure he doesn’t find him.

Film scholar, Adrian Martin, does the commentary track for Arrow’s new Blu-ray. Whereas Christina Newland’s booklet essay considers The Big Clock’s noir credentials (and also makes the point that the film qualifies as a workplace drama), Martin states early on that he’d rather look at the ways the film eludes classification. John Latimer, the screenwriter, was against the “humorless tradition of hardboiled… noir style writing,” and there are elements of screwball comedy throughout the film. When George quits his job (and I’ve never seen anyone not cave to the ‘I’ll give you six minutes to reconsider’ line, but he does until extenuating circumstances pull him back in), his wife’s reaction to the news is hilarious, and George’s petty commitment to the color green, because Janoth dislikes it, is absolutely marvelous.

In what appears to be a change from the book, Martin compares George and his wife to The Thin Man movies. In Kenneth Fearing’s novel, which The Big Clock adapts, George and Pauline had an affair, but the film keeps George a family man and I’m glad they made that alteration. Georgette’s not a pushover. She doesn’t wait for her husband to give her instructions. She’s not afraid to act on her own, and the film doesn’t insult her by making out like she’s a nagging wife.

I keep going back to Martin, but his commentary track really hits on everything I loved about this movie, while also fostering a new appreciation for scenes like George’s elevator ride. Every time the door opens it’s a new set for a different floor. Martin also talks about Laughton’s facial gestures, the use of the sundial in the opening credits (which reminds me of The Maltese Falcon), director, John Farrow’s, restraint when it comes to emphasizing important details, the ending (which doesn’t overstay its welcome), and what, really, to me, is what makes The Big Clock tick– its structure. All of the turns in the film happen silently.

When George returns to work, for example, he believes Janoth thinks that his mistress has strayed and wants to find the man responsible. When George finds out the truth, his investigation changes gears but it’s left to the audience to realize that. Usually George would be paired with a friend or a co-worker who has to be kept up to speed on what’s going on, and Georgette helps him later, but mostly George is on his own and the realizations happen internally. The opening scene uses voiceover but that’s it. Viewers are responsible for keeping track of what’s happening.

Additional bonus features include a featurette on Laughton by Simon Callow, an analysis of the film by Adrian Wootton, and a radio version of the film starring Milland and O’Sullivan (the rest of the roles are recast).

A cross between State of Play and His Girl Friday, The Big Clock is available now from Arrow Films and gets my highest recommendation.

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