The Big Clock ★★★½

A couple of my reservations when it comes to film noir are that, A) the classics of the genre take too many shortcuts, undercutting character motivations for the sake of plot convenience; and, B), they seem to tread too much in the same shallow, thematic waters and rarely introduce new ideas. John Farrow's 1948 noir The Big Clock is guilty, a bit, of A, at least at the outset, but not at all of B, pulling out some nice narrative variations on common tropes, as well as intriguingly reflecting on the concept of time throughout.

Ray Milland stars as George Stroud, a whiz crime investigator for the news behemoth Janoth Publications. Tired of his demanding job and uncompromising boss (Charles Laughton), George is willing to throw away his career for the chance to finally take his wife (Maureen O'Sullivan) on their seven-year-overdue honeymoon. However, George is a monumentally terrible time manager -- and husband! -- and misses their train while having drinks with Janoth's unsettled mistress (Rita Johnson). This massive and unforced error results in George becoming the mystery subject of a manhunt for a murder that he didn't commit, and he must reclaim his job to lead the investigation, steering it away from himself and toward the real perpetrator.

That boneheaded instigating faux pas aside, The Big Clock is tight, tense and even wryly funny, with Milland nimbly jumping from shaken to savvy as his survival necessitates. One of the freshest assets of Jonathan Latimer's screenplay, based on Kenneth Fearing's novel, is that George spends most of the movie unaware of its implications, giving Milland and Farrow several different layers of contextual tension to slide between. Laughton is perfect as the narcissist Janoth, who effortlessly manipulates the people around him to consume their time, and isn't above manipulating time to consume people when it serves him. While neither O'Sullivan nor Johnson are given much to do, the great Elsa Lanchester has a bright small role as an artist whose work becomes evidence in the crime, and she pays off her minor involvement with a big, satisfying laugh.

Thematically, The Big Clock is obsessed with its titular symbolism, and only marginally as it manifests in the giant, presumably unstoppable clock that dominates the lobby of Janoth's headquarters. His employees and acquaintances hold their time spent in Janoth's orbit as points of pride or regret; key appointments are missed and the timing of stealth actions is recorded with unforeseen consequences; clocks sought as objects of amusement become used for other purposes; there are races against time that only postpone the inevitable; those who ignore time live to regret it, while those who worship time find that it takes no sides. Whatever the intended take-away from all of The Big Clock's temporal musings, it makes for consistently engaging grist as the second-hand grinds on toward a satisfyingly stark conclusion.