According to a Wikipedia article, “film noir” is French for “black film.”
What makes up the elements of film noir? You could find any number of websites that will offer varying descriptions but your humble reviewer thinks the best way to describe noir is to point at various films of the genre and to say, ‘this is it,” and “this is it,” and “this is it!”
Could any higher compliment be paid to a film than to say that it is representative of what its genre should be? Your reviewer feels that this is one of the movies that can be held up as an example of film noir to say to someone, “this is what it is!”
This is not a film noir movie with a lot of stalking around fog-filled alleys and intense police investigations. Rather, it is the story of a man who is on the run, but not in the traditional sense.
George Stroud (Ray Milland) is an executive in a publishing company. He’s going to be accused of murder. He’s on the run inside an office building in an attempt to not be recognized by a man who has been brought into the building. That recognition will lead to accusations of murder.
Mr. Stroud’s goal, therefore, is to get to the bottom of the crime from within the building in an attempt to stave off his own ruin.
This movie is 95 minutes long and it should be 95 good minutes of movie-watching for film noir fans. It is based on the novel of the same name by Kenneth Fearing.
The rest of this review will contain spoilers. We’re going to take a good look at this movie so if you have not seen it, bail out when your interest is whetted and return to discuss it when you are done.
The writing, casting and acting are all good in this movie.
At the beginning of the movie, we meet George Stroud in the lobby of the skyscraper that houses Janoth Publications. Stroud is the editor of one of the Janoth magazines (and the focus of the movie).
He’s slinking through the building trying to avoid being detected by security guards who have been given orders to shoot to kill.
It’s at this point that we begin to hear the story that has led to this moment. It all started 36 hours ago. Everything was normal at that time but some very unexpected and strange things have occurred. George asks at the outset, “How did this happen?”
In the lobby of the Janoth Building is a very large clock. It’s so big that some sort of 1948 computer is inside controlling it and several people can fit into it comfortably. It controls all of the clocks in the building as well as the clocks in several other American locations and all of Janoth’s holdings abroad.
Tours are given daily and hundreds of people visit the building to see the clock.
The Big Clock - The Clock
Janoth Publications outputs many magazines from their New York City skyscraper. Each magazine is published on a different floor. Some of the magazines include; Sportways, Airways, Artways, Styleways, Newsways, and then there’s Crimeways – that’s the magazine that George Stroud is the editor of.
George and his wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan) are natives of Wheeling, West Virginia. They’ve been married for seven years and have a five year old son. But, we learn that they never even had the chance to honeymoon. George began working for Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) about the time they were married and Janoth has never allowed him to go on a vacation.
Oh, they’ve planned vacations before but Janoth inevitably finds a reason why George must stay at work and the trips home to West Virginia are always cancelled.
Now, another vacation has been planned. In fact, George, Georgette and their little boy are leaving aboard a train bound for their hometown tonight.
Earl Janoth is a multi-millionaire who presides over his publishing empire. He’s also a clock-obsessed, teeth-picking, eavesdropping, controlling tyrant. Janoth is not too impressed with most of the people that work for him. His closest associate, and only confidant, is his right-hand man, Steve Hagen (George Macready) who is listed as Editor-in-Chief of all of Janoth’s magazines.
But, he also finds favor with George Stroud.
George’s main redeeming quality is that Crimeways is successful – due in large part to George’s ability to generate public interest and sell magazines because he oversees a staff that has great success finding people that are missing or hiding in relation to criminal activity.
They keep a blackboard in the office and use it to keep track of clues while they track down the people they are searching for.
The Big Clock - The blackboard of clues
They’ve just located a missing person in Salt Lake City and it gets Janoth’s attention. He knows this story will sell a lot of magazines and he wants George to postpone his vacation, yet again, to keep the wheels turning. Janoth is so controlling that he wants the printer to use red ink to print the story and when George tells him that the printer says that’s a technical problem, Janoth simply fires the printer. (Later, as another example of Janoth’s penny-pinching control, he orders an employee’s pay docked for leaving a light burning.)
George is in the process of arranging his staff so they can cover the story while he is gone and get the magazine out. This is not an acceptable plan for Mr. Janoth and he informs George that he can postpone his vacation and go later. George declines and tells him that has been the case too many times in the past. When Janoth gives him an ultimatum that he either stay or quit, George quits. Janoth further informs him that he will “blackball” him and that he’ll never work for a magazine again.
The Big Clock - Janoth says stay or else
Pauline York (Rita Johnson) is an attractive girl who is a “friend” of Janoth. Actually, it appears that she is a “kept woman” of sorts. Janoth is supposed to dish out the money to her but he’s not quite dishing enough.
Pauline is present in Janoth’s office when he is using an intercom system to eavesdrop on George in his office while he rails on about not being able to go on his vacation. After she and Janoth have a falling out (over money), she follows George to a restaurant and while he waits for his wife at the bar, she sits down and introduces herself.
They are both angry at Janoth and they chat while they have a few drinks and blow off steam railing against him. When serving a cocktail, the bartender inadvertently spills a drink on Pauline. George offers his handkerchief for her to wipe it off.
Shortly after, Georgette Stroud arrives at the restaurant to have dinner with her husband and sees George talking to Pauline York. Georgette wants to know who she is. George tells her that she is someone he just met moments ago and that’s it.
After the dinner George tells his wife that he has to get some things done and that he will meet her later.
Here’s where it’s going to get a bit confusing, but it’s all important and it makes sense.
Georgette Stroud has had a number of vacations cancelled and she’s not in the mood for it this time. She does not know that George has quit his job and when he’s not on time for their scheduled departure, she boards the train and leaves without him.
Later when George calls home, he is informed by the housekeeper that his wife left him behind, so he and Pauline hook up again for a night of drinking. What happens here is important: On the way to a bar, a tipsy George and Pauline stop by an antique store after George spots a painting in a window. George collects paintings by an artist named Louise Patterson (Elsa Lanchester). He recognizes this as being one of her paintings.
They enter the store only to find that a rather unusual lady is already trying to buy the painting.
Additional spoiler alert: We don’t find out now but later it is revealed that the lady trying to buy the painting is the artist herself; Louise Patterson. George, obviously, does not recognize her on sight.
She offers $10 to the store owner for her own painting but George offers more and the painting is sold to him. He and Pauline then depart the store with the painting in hand.
They head to a bar called Burt’s Place. It looks like a fun spot and they have a good time.
The Big Clock - At Burt's Place
The big draw at Burt’s Place is that the bar is full of all kinds of knick-knacks and the idea is to stump Burt, the owner/bartender, by asking for something that he can’t immediately produce. One customer says “bubbles” and within seconds Burt has bubbles flying across the bar.
George and Pauline are rather inebriated and ask Burt for a “green clock.” Within seconds Burt produces a sundial with a green ribbon tied around it – thus, a green clock. The have failed to stump Burt.
They depart the bar with the sundial in their possession and end up at Pauline’s apartment. Drunk, George passes out on the couch.
When Pauline looks out the window and sees Janoth’s car outside, she wakes George up and tells him that he’s got to go before Janoth makes it up to her apartment.
George manages to get out just in time and heads for the staircase just as Janoth exits the elevator. Janoth pauses and looks toward the stairs and sees George descending in the shadows. Janoth takes a close look but is unable to identify the person he is looking at due to the darkness.
Janoth enters Pauline’s apartment and immediately starts making accusations against her. It is apparent that Pauline likes to have a good time and Janoth knows it and he doesn’t like it. He sees her as his property and he is enraged.
Janoth demands that Pauline tell him who the man was that just left. She obliges and makes up a name; Jefferson Randolph.
Then, Pauline proceeds to dress him down and tells him that if he were not the great Mr. Janoth that no one would pay any attention to him at all.
People do not talk to Earl Janoth this way and get away with it.
The Big Clock - Janoth is not happy
In a fit of rage, Janoth reaches for anything he can find. The first thing he finds in the sundial that George and Pauline brought home from Burt’s Place. He grabs it, swings it, and hits Pauline.
Janoth leaves the apartment. Pauline is dead on the floor.
Meanwhile, George sobers up, and knowing that his wife and son left town without him, gets on a plane and flies to West Virginia. When he arrives late at night, his wife is angry at him but he explains that he no longer is employed with Janoth and that they can return to West Virginia where he will be content to work for a local newspaper.
This makes Georgette Stroud very happy – but that happiness will be short-lived.
Back in New York, Janoth (after murdering Pauline) turns to his only confidant, Steve Hagen. Janoth tells Steve that he’s just killed Pauline and the two of them go into immediate damage control.
Steve Hagen takes a taxi to Pauline’s apartment to survey the situation.
Once inside, he finds an electric clock that was broken when Janoth killed Pauline. Obviously, it shows the time the murder was committed. Hagen turns the broken clock back an hour – back to the time that George Stroud was in her apartment.
He also discovers the murder weapon, the sundial, and removes it from the apartment.
Funny thing though, when he looks at the bottom of the instrument, it opens the door to being able to pin the murder on another person; it shows where it came from – Burt’s Place.
The Big Clock - The murder weapon
Not only do Janoth and Hagen want to pin the murder on someone else, Janoth is worried that someone, especially the other man, saw him at Pauline’s apartment.
Steve Hagen tells Janoth that maybe the man doesn’t know him, to which Janoth replies, “Everyone knows me.” Jefferson Randolph must be found and the murder must be pinned on him, especially before he can possibly identify Earl Janoth as someone he saw entering Pauline’s apartment.
Back in West Virginia, George Stroud has been with his wife for less than five minutes. He has informed her that he no longer works for Janoth. She is happy. All will be well again.
But, the telephone rings. George doesn’t answer the first time but it rings again. This time he answers and before he knows it, he’s talking to Earl Janoth.
This is one of the most important moments in the film and it’s important to understand what happens here.
George does not know that Pauline is dead. All he knows is that he saw Janoth arrive at her apartment.
On the other end of the phone Earl Janoth tells George a story. George does not know what it all means, but he sees through it enough to know that it points at him.
Janoth says that a man named Jefferson Randolph (the name Pauline made up) is the payoff man in a war contract scandal and that they have to track him down. He needs George to use the resources of Crimeways Magazine to find this man. Janoth wants George to set up the blackboard and put his staff on the job at once.
When he relates the details, George knows that he is Jefferson Randolph. He still doesn’t know that Pauline is dead, but he knows that if he is exposed as the man who bought the painting and was Burt’s Place that it will lead to his ruin. But, he thinks at this point that Janoth simply wants to know who was in Pauline’s apartment.
Knowing what might be in store for him George quickly agrees to return to New York after only being in West Virginia for a few minutes.
Now we meet Bill Womack (Harry Morgan, pre-Dragnet, pre-M*A*S*H) when he is giving Janoth a massage. Womack appears to be a heavy that works for Janoth, and suddenly he’s everywhere shadowing George upon his return. Janoth’s intentions are to carefully control the events that are to follow and Womack is there to do his bidding.
The Big Clock - Bill Womack
George now oversees an investigation that he must also manipulate, lest it close in on him.
Although George tries to steer his investigators in wrong directions, they start to close in.
Georgette Stroud returns to New York. She knows that something is wrong and when she returns to their apartment and finds the painting, and then reads a newspaper article about the painting, she knows she has to help.
One of George’s investigators finds the painter (Louise Patterson) at her home and when she tells him that she was also trying to buy the painting, she further relates that the woman in the company of the unknown man was Pauline York. Patterson remembers her from some prior work that she did. Furthermore, Louise Patterson can identify George if she sees him. She just doesn’t know his identity.
When this information reaches George by telephone, he goes to Pauline’s apartment as quickly as he can to try to talk to Pauline and stave off further identification. George arrives and enters the apartment. Her body is still on the floor where she fell when struck as she has not been discovered by anyone else.
Now, George knows that Pauline is dead and he knows that Janoth killed her. The goal is to prove it and not end up being framed for the crime himself. George also notices the broken clock on the floor and turns the hands forward one hour.
George returns to the Janoth Building to find out that the antique dealer is now present in the building. He can identify the man who bought the painting and Janoth puts the building on lockdown so that the antique dealer can look at everyone in the building.
Now George Stroud is really in trouble. He tries to get out of the building by using a side door but all exits are sealed and Janoth has ordered his guards to shoot to kill if the man is identified.
During this time, Georgette Stroud (who is also in the building trying to help her husband) finds the handkerchief that George gave to Pauline in the bar when the bartender spilled a drink on her. It is in Steve Hagen’s office. There is no way that Steve could have come to possess this item if he were not involved.
Everything is coming to a climax now. George has been hiding trying to gather evidence – he has found out information about the cab that took Steve Hagen to Pauline York’s apartment, and where it took him next.
George is ready to confront Hagen and Janoth. But, Janoth’s heavy, Bill Womack, is following him through the building. George and Womack fight inside the big clock and George temporarily knocks him out. But, that doesn’t last long and Womack is again on his trail.
George makes it back upstairs and Bill Womack is headed up in the private elevator. George uses the interlock system to shut down the elevator trapping Womack in the elevator between floors.
George, Georgette, Steve Hagen and Mr. Janoth meet in Hagen’s office and George makes an accusation.
The Big Clock - An accusation is made
Your humble reviewer feels that this movie is right on target for film noir type fare. It seems neither too long nor too short. Virtually everything has something to do with the plot. The movie really has no “filler” material that does not relate to the story.
The casting is very good and the story is believable. Thy mystery is what will happen at the end as you are witness to the crime and the wrongdoing that leads to George Stroud’s situation.
If you are a collector of film noir movies, don’t miss this one.
The Big Clock - Janoth makes his escape
The Big Clock @ imdb.com