Film Highlight: The Big Clock

Rita Johnson and Ray Milland star in <i>The Big Clock </i>(1948)

Rita Johnson and Ray Milland star in The Big Clock (1948)

The titular timekeeping device is a giant whirring mechanism of near infallibility, and so is pulp novelist Jonathan Latimer's dazzling script for this underrated 1948 noir, an exceptionally witty and devious diversion. Like the Columbo series, for which Latimer wrote late in his career, the plot inverts the whodunit formula. The murderer, an arrogant publisher played by Charles Laughton, is known from the beginning. His ace true-crime editor (Ray Milland) must prove what we already know: that the boss killed a mistress and left evidence pointing toward a mystery man—the editor himself. The gimmick—and it's a doozy—is that the hero must therefore thwart his own staff of expert crime-busters before they figure out who they're looking for. If this sounds familiar, it's because the Swiss-watch suspense machinery was borrowed by 2003's unjustly maligned Out of Time and remade outright into the ludicrous Kevin Costner hit No Way Out. But those films lacked the dark-city menace, constricting claustrophobia, and trim mobility of John Farrow's direction, beginning with a bravura opener that issues a top-that dare to both Hitchcock and De Palma. As a lagniappe, there's a rogue's gallery of amusing character players including future Dragnet flatfoot Harry Morgan as a screwy mute torpedo and Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester as a flighty abstract artist who delivers the movie's funniest punch line: her witness-identification sketch.