The Big Clock (1948)

If the “big clock,” the center piece of John Farrow’s 1948 film about the fall of a tyrannical publishing tycoon named Earl Janoth, seems to play only a peripheral role in the resolution of the plot, it might have something to do with how it’s more than just a clock. “Built at the cost of $600,000, it’s the most accurate and unique privately-owned clock in the world, set so you can tell the time anywhere on the Earth. It also synchronizes the clocks in Janoth corporate headquarters with those in the secondary printing plants in Kansas City and San Francisco and in the 43 foreign bureaus of the Janoth organization.” The “big clock,” in other words is capitalism itself, the pistons and crankshaft of a major corporation, what the social critic Lewis Mumford called “the mega-machine.”

Stuck inside Earl Janoth’s mega-machine is George Stroud, Ray Milland. Stroud, a one time West Virginia newspaper man, is the editor-in-chief of “Crimeways Magazine.” He’s Janoth’s most valuable employee. He’s also Janoth’s slave. As the film opens, he’s faced with a decision. He can take the two weeks vacation he promised his wife and son, or he can keep his job. Georgette Stroud wants no part of life in the big city. She, rightfully, sees her husband’s “success” as a burden that keeps him from spending time with his family. So when Janoth gives her husband an ultimatum — he can cancel his vacation to work on the latest issue of Crimeways or get fired and blacklisted — she’d just as soon see him quit the big time and go back to being a small-town newspaper reporter.

What follows is far too convoluted and full of unexpected twists to summarize in a quick review. What’s more, I wouldn’t want to give any spoilers for a movie that, even though it was made in 1948, still deserves a fresh viewing. The Big Clock is such an incisive look at corporate capitalism, and so rarely seen these days, that I hope that anybody reading this will go out and watch it as soon as he can find a copy. But, even though the twists and turns of the plot are an intricate crime story, the film’s overarching them is simple, to the point, and revolutionary.

George Stroud realizes that, even though he’s a valuable, highly paid employee, he’s still an employee. Unlike the typical member of today’s upper-middle-class, he knows there’s no such thing as a meritocracy, that he’s not special, that he serves at the pleasure of Mr. Janoth. Janoth, Charles Laughton, is in fact, as much of a king as an employer. He not only rules over a publishing empire, he rules over time itself. The “big clock” in the lobby of Janoth Corporate headquarters may have been a set piece in a movie released in 1948, but it could just as easily be part of the digital world of 2015. Today’s Mr. Janoths track their employees with key loggers, scheduling software, biometrics. In the event they can’t manage their workers on their own, they have a highly sophisticated security/surveillance state at their disposal, and a corporatist neoliberal government to clamp down on dissent. Mr. Janoth has his big clock, his bought and paid for enforcers, and his intelligent, obsessive personality, but the concept is the same. Corporate capitalism controls every part of a worker’s life.

George Stroud, unlike his wife, is still ambitious. It would be easy enough to go back to West Virginia and write about local news. He goes back into the machine anyway. After having his consciousness raised by his initial, although largely ineffectual gesture of rebellion, however, he’s fully aware of how Earl Janoth is not only his employer but his deadly enemy. For most of the film, he looks like a doomed man, a patsy who will go to prison for the rest of his life for a murder his employer committed. Georgette Stroud turns out to be of little practical help. She’s a drop out, not a revolutionary.She simply wants to go back to West Virginia.  Stroud is a revolutionary not a drop out. He goes back to the machine to destroy the machine. “What if the clock stops working?” a tourist asks him at the beginning of the film. “Oh Mr. Janoth would never allow that,” he responds, and he’s right. But the tourist never asks one possible follow up question. “What if Mr. Janoth stops working?”

By the end of The Big Clock, George Stroud is quite literally trapped inside Janoth corporate headquarters. On the surface, he’s a fugitive on the run from the law. In a deeper sense, he’s an ambitious man who has allowed himself to become a literal cog in the corporate mega-machine. But Stroud, who is familiar with the city’s night life, has a network he can call on for help, an eccentric painter, an Irish bartender, a would be actor a counter culture twenty years before anybody even used the term “counter culture.” That the overthrow of Earl Janoth takes trust, cooperation, and a network of supporters, means that it’s more than a corporate coup. It is the victory of bohemian New York over corporate New York. If you’re sick of the right-wing Madmen, and its not so hidden assumption that there is no alternative to the corporatist, neoliberal world order, this is the film for you.

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