The Big Clock begins, as all stories about a desperate journalist ought to, with a drunken night. Charles Stroud, a dapper editor being forced to quit his job, is approached at a bar by a mysterious and beautiful blonde. When he learns that she is the suffering lover of his publisher, their commiserations leave a trail of drained whiskeys and stingers (brandy, crème de menthe) across Manhattan.
Even taking that concoction into account, the morning after brings a hangover worse than expected: the woman’s dead body, and a tightening ring of clues leftover from their evening together all pointing to Stroud.
But this is no whodunit; viewers know that Stroud is guilty of nothing more than, once again, standing up his work-widowed wife and their five-year-old boy. And the audience has seen the real killer: the publisher, Earl Janoth, who, upon attempting a nighttime visit to his kept woman, bludgeons her after she admits she’s been out with another man.
The editor-in-chief who oversees all of Janoth’s magazines suggests hanging the murder on that man. And they bring the considerable resources of the Janoth Publications empire (forty-three foreign bureaus, 3,600 employees, a budget—in 1948 dollars—of $37 million) to bear.
Naturally, they turn to Stroud, who seven years before, while working as an assistant editor of the Wheeling Carrier, had drawn Janoth’s attention after solving a sensational crime. Stroud is reinstalled to his just-resigned editorship of Crimeways magazine, “the police blotter of the nation,” and, he soon realizes, assigned to catch himself. He must throw his diligent staff off his scent long enough to establish Janoth’s guilt.
Crimeways is just one of many titles in the Janoth realm—Sportways, Artways, Dollarways, and so on—all run out of offices stacked in a skyscraper, underneath his penthouse boardroom. The elevator doors open to reveal a peek of each title; the newsmen (and, this being 1948, they really are men) crane their necks at a model being readied for a Styleways photo shoot.
This glitz is a long way from Wheeling, which, as things look bleak, Stroud pines for. “Believe me, if could get out of this jam, I’d go back to West Virginia,” he desperately tells his wife. “Cover church socials, write obituaries, set type—anything!” But he traded away that simpler life for well-tailored suits, a maid, a private office with a bar, and $30,000 a year. (Inflation adjusted: $2.8 million. Those were the days.)
Janoth presides over his tower of commerce with a forcefulness and entitlement befitting the royal flavor of his given name. In an early scene, the editor of Newsways is humiliated in a humorless senior meeting for presenting a lackluster plan to promptly increase his circulation by 100,000. “Dynamic angles,” are what Janoth demands; in corporate noir, such jargon can finger the heavy.
Janoth also seems to have made full use of his company’s, uh, assets: his mistress, once a model on the Styleways payroll, reels of a list of other employees he’s been associated with (“the Artways secretary the stenographer the elevator girl”), setting off Janoth’s twitching, and then murderous, rage:
Stroud, played by Ray Milland, who two years before won an Oscar for his role in The Lost Weekend, is forced out of his editor’s suite into the streets. He legs around town, chatting up a doorman and offering cash to cabbies and a slightly batty oil painter—witnesses who can establish Janoth’s guilt or, if not greased, wrongly suggest his.
When Janoth, through the efforts of Crimeways’s reporters, learns of a missing piece of evidence that would sink Stroud, he dispatches his PR men to cook up a front page afternoon tabloid story offering a $10,000 reward. This draws someone to the Janoth building who saw Stroud and the mistress out together, who then spots Stroud boarding the elevator.
The exits are sealed, as Janoth’s black-suited body man prowls the building with a revolver. Earlier, while massaging his boss’s naked back with tattooed arms, Janoth (played by a walrus-like Charles Laughton) gave this intimate henchman veiled but unmistakable orders to kill the patsy.
Trapped, and with his life on the line, Stroud engineers a final confrontation in Janoth’s executive suite. Janoth gets his ultimate justice, though not at the hands of Stroud or the law, but by a symbol of the wealth and entitlement he’s accumulated: when, after killing the loyal editor in chief who helped him set the frame, he steps into his private elevator, only to find an empty shaft.
Of course, the just-desserts ending comes as no surprise. Instead, the joy of the film is in Laughton’s creepy, but usually controlled, performance, and the fact that it is a well-told, brisk, and cleverly constructed tale. The Big Clock’s theatrical trailer earns its boast of an “ever mounting thrill of suspense,” as Stroud continually dodges the fate that his bosses have tried to lay on him.
While the Janoth Publications empire makes a perfect playground for this story, and its principals are an editor and a press baron, it isn’t so much a story about journalism. There’s a bit of fun tabloid-like swashbuckling, like sending reporters around to check alibis on the premise of conducting a random nightlife survey. And there’s the poor printer who is fired after, for technical reasons, going against Janoth’s wishes and running a headline in green instead of red type.
The one reportorial innovation that Stroud credits Crimeways’s case-cracking scoops to is what he calls “the system of irrelevant clues,” the habit of recording manhunt details which, through sheer accumulation, naturally become relevant. But no matter how hard director John Farrow worked the camera and his actors to make this method—the “Crimeways Clue Chart”—seem revelatory, it’s just a chalkboard.
As for the implicit moral lessons, they track closely with other films of the genre. Be wary of those with power and wealth, especially those who are mean, impulsive, demanding, and promiscuous. And mind the seduction of mammon, which can distract from love and family.
“Isn’t it a pity: the wrong people always have money,” quips one supporting character. It’s an observation that many journalists, working under owners, publishers, and bean-counters less deadly than Janoth, have voiced.
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