The Big Clock is supposedly a noir film, and it is based on the marvelous novel by Kenneth Fearing of the same name. The book is pure noir – the film plays a lot of the situations for laughs. Aside from the deluxe art deco settings and Charles Laughton, the film doesn’t offer much, or it seemed that way to me, having read the book first. While the novel is a dark, brutal evocation of corporate America, and creates a terrible level of suspense as George Stroud is slowly crushed in the vice of circumstances and his own moral pecadilloes, the film is only moderately exciting.
The plot is clever – George Stroud is having an affair with the mistress of his boss, Earl Janoth. Janoth kills her, and Stroud is a witness who can place him at the scene of the crime. Janoth knows he was seen, but not by whom. He turns the vast resources of his journalistic empire to the task of locating the witness before that man talks to the police. He entrusts the task to George Stroud!
Within the course of a day, Stroud must run the investigative effort, try to derail it, but not seem to. (He won’t go to the cops because he doesn’t want to destroy his marriage – a weak link in the story.) Willy nilly, his team accumulates evidence that begins to point right at him.
In the novel, Stroud is a pretty ruthless and hard-nosed fellow. The dialogue is coarse and direct: the dead mistress was a part-time Liz (that’s les-bian). Janoth kills her when she accuses him of having homosexual longings for his No. 2 man. Only Laughton carries some of that into the film, portraying Janoth as a flabby, egotistical, effeminate bastard of a mogul.
The movie evokes the theme of the Big Clock literally, placing it in the lobby of Janoth Enterprises, and controlling all the clocks in his obsessively scheduled empire. The book is more poetic – we never get a clear definition of what is The Big Clock. We only know that it moves ceaselessly on its rounds, grinding up everyone in its gears, without sense, without pity. The clock is corporate America.