It's night in the city as a desperate man holes up inside the works of an enormous clock. Thirty-six hours ago, George Stroud (Ray Milland) was a respected, well-to-do magazine editor with a loving wife and son. Now he's a wanted man, on the run for a murder he didn't commit.
Spun from a novel by Kenneth Fearing, The Big Clockis a tortuously suspenseful thriller in the Hitchcock mode, featuring endless tricky reversals of fortune and narrow escapes. But just under the surface, there's something else at work. Fearing was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, and it's not difficult to see the symbolism in George's plight.
George is an overworked man who hasn't had a vacation in years, and his lovely but endlessly whining wife (Maureen O'Sullivan) is one more disappointment away from walking out on him. George would quit, but he knows that if he did, his boss, Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), would place a few calls and get him eternally blacklisted in the publishing field. Janoth is an obese, hypermeticulous schemer who could give C. Montgomery Burns lessons in wicked drollery; he runs his organization with whatever's harder than an iron fist, going so far as to dock the pay of one poor wretch who dares to leave a light on in a broom closet. Predictably enough, this perfect specimen of anal retention is a man of decadent private appetites, and when those appetites get him in trouble, Janoth is all too happy to let handy underling George take the fall. With his slick suits, lardy frame and a greasy little mustache he is forever twirling (Laughton fiddles with the thing so much you'd swear he's trying to keep it attached to his face), Laughton is almost the living embodiment of the Big Boss from a political cartoon in some old lefty newspaper.
Laughton was never a subtle actor; he attacked every role with lovably hammy gusto. It's difficult to imagine anybody but Laughton playing Janoth, but that's also true of every role Laughton ever played. He was a true chameleon (or as chameleon-like as a guy shaped like a refrigerator could be), a master thespian of the wigs-and-funny-teeth school who absolutely commanded every scene he appeared in. Laughton's acting is always compelling, but when he's given room to roam, as he is in The Big Clock, the results are black magic.
The performances throughout are quite good; Milland was one of those blandly competent actors who could occasionally surprise you, jolting you into realizing he was capable of more than he usually got. As his wife, O'Sullivan (whose union with the film's director, John Farrow, would produce Mia Farrow) takes a truly thankless part and manages to give it some juice. Every line out of her mouth is a gripe about something or other, but in O'Sullivan's capable hands, we scarcely notice what a mewling baby her character is. There's also welcome comic relief from Elsa Lanchester, captured here in transition from the Goth goddess of her Bride of Frankensteindays to the plump, dotty old gals she portrayed from the '50s on. Just about every character she played had a delightful, impish insanity, and she continues that noble tradition here as a bohemian chickie with a string of ex-husbands.
Like its namesake, The Big Clock is a well-made machine, with all its complex parts working together in wondrous harmony.
The Big Clock screens at the Orange County Museum of Art, Lyon Auditorium, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122, ext. 204. Fri., 6:30 p.m. $4-$6.