A Paramount production, released 9 April 1948, directed by John Farrow from a screenplay by Jonathan Latimer, based on the 1946 novel by Kenneth Fearing. Photographed by Daniel L. Fapp and John F. Seitz. Produced by Richard Maibaum and John Farrow. 95 minutes. (Available on a 10/10 Universal DVD).
Plot: A dictatorial magazine publisher, Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), orders his chief reporter, George Stroud (Ray Milland), to institute a hunt for a missing murder witness. Stroud himself is that witness.
The author: Kenneth Fearing was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1902. He died in 1961. After working as a newspaper reporter in Chicago, he moved to New York where, whilst continuing to write articles for newspapers and magazines, he gained a considerable reputation as a poet. In fact, he published at least five collections of poems. Although his later books were not as warmly received as his earlier Angel Arms (1929) or Poems (1935), he continued to contribute to The New Yorker and Poetry right up to his death. Of his novels, "The Big Clock" proved far and away the most successful, both with critics and public, and it was the only one to be turned into a movie.
The book: A comparatively short novel of around 50,000 words, "The Big Clock" is a book which even a slow reader could manage in three or four hours. Using a narrative structure borrowed from Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868), it provides "George Stroud" with the opportunity to contribute eleven chapters, Earl Janoth himself three, while Steve Hagen (Janoth's evil henchman, menacingly brought to life in the movie by George Macready), Edward Orlin (called Edwin Orlin in the movie), Georgette Stroud (played by director John Farrow's real-life wife, Maureen O'Sullivan, in the movie), Emory Mafferson (a minor character—a reporter—omitted in the film) and even the dotty artist, Louise Patterson (played in the film by Laughton's real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester), provide one chapter each. Oddly enough, "The Big Clock" itself does not have a visual counterpart in the book. It simply refers to Time.
The movie: The plot and characters in the book are more or less the same as in the movie, except that in the film version—surprise! surprise!—both are more fully developed. In the novel, the climax fizzles out when Janoth suddenly loses control and exits, off-camera as it were. The climax in the film is certainly far more exciting and, what I regard as more important, it is developed logically and convincingly.
Only one character in the book seems more interesting than his movie counterpart. Oddly enough, this is George Stroud. Our hero has been ironed out for the film, partly because of censorship problems and partly because it was thought necessary to present a clear-cut, clean-cut hero with whom audiences could readily identify. On the other hand, the Janoth of the book is a mere shadow of the terrifyingly obese, self-preserving tycoon of the movie.
Other characters that screenwriter Jonathan Latimer has made far more fascinating include Janoth's henchman, Billy (in the book, he is not dumb, merely noted for keeping silent), the glib McKinley (the novel gives his real name as Clyde Norbert Polhemus, but he never actually appears on-stage), and even Steve Hagen (in the book, Janoth makes no attempt to persuade Hagen to take his place).
Director John Farrow has handled the movie with such a sure hand, making such instinctively artful use of his players, his camera and his sets, that many (including me) regard it as his best film. He himself, however, told me that he actually preferred another film in which he worked with screenwriter Latimer and actor Milland, namely "Alias Nick Beal".