If I ask you to think about a clock in a movie, what comes to mind?
Maybe it’s the countdown clock in Oppenheimer, the wristwatches in 1917, or Back to the Future’s clock tower. Perhaps your mind goes back to childhood, and you recall the stroke of midnight in Cinderella. If you’re into Westerns, then maybe you think of High Noon or 3:10 to Yuma or similar films where the relentless ticking of a clock plays a central role.
What’s the mood that these clocks usually create? Tension, suspense, often an increasing feeling of dread. Whatever the clock is ticking down to, it’s got to be stopped or outraced. The way so many of our best-known films are set up, the reminder of time passing is almost unfailingly ominous.
There may be more to this phenomenon than we fully understand, though. So suggests Matthew Dwight Moore in his recent book Watching Cosmic Time: The Suspense Films of Hitchcock, Welles, and Reed (2022, Cascade Books).
Time in the movies, Moore argues, is more than just a means of keeping things suspenseful. It’s a reflection of the fundamental orderliness of the universe, and what unsettles us is the longing to see the disorder and conflict on the screen resolve back to that ultimate state of order.
Moore offers several examples from some of the twentieth century’s greatest filmmakers to prove his point. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), a young woman’s peaceful small town life is disrupted when her adored visiting uncle turns out to be a murderer on the run. Moore highlights the importance of time in the sequence where Charlie (Teresa Wright) goes to the library late at night to look for a newspaper article that will confirm her growing suspicions:
Symbolically, in an orderly society, not conforming one’s schedule to that of the authorities can lead to a breakdown of the system. …
As she speeds to the library, she notices she is too late and the library is closing. It is 9:00 at night. She pleads to be let in, to have some authority allow her transgression. While knocking at the front door, she receives disapproving looks from citizens passing by, reminding us of the social pressures that reinforce the orderly system. It is easy to see the librarian, who explains “If I make one exception, I’ll have to make a thousand,” as a prickly stereotype. However, in this universal context, her symbolic function in the narrative is entirely consistent. It is her moral responsibility to keep to the preordained schedule. “You have all day,” the librarian tells Charlie, visibly upset that she has violated her own duty. As a result of being given a reprieve of “just three minutes,” Charlie finds the newspaper and learns about her uncle’s supreme transgression—murder. These extra three minutes have changed Charlie’s view of the world and its established order.
Hitchcock shows here the inherent understanding of the interplay of time and disorder that earned him the nickname “the master of suspense.” The irony of the situation, of course, is that Charlie must commit a time-related transgression to discover the truth that will ultimately help to pursue justice and restore order.
Moore goes on to explore the role of time in The Stranger (1946), in which director and star Orson Welles plays a Nazi fugitive from justice, and Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947), starring James Mason as an Irish nationalist fleeing the authorities after a robbery gone wrong. All three films—one made during World War II, two made just after—are haunted by the specter of the violence that convulsed the world, localized in the stories of men trying to evade the consequences of unleashing such violence in their own communities or countries.
And in all three films, as Moore carefully details, time plays a critical role in these men’s fate. The cover image of his book is a photo of Orson Welles in The Stranger poised atop a clock tower—a clock that his character, the Nazi Charles Rankin, has spent much of the film tinkering with. Rankin’s knowledge of this prominent clock in the small Connecticut town into which he has insinuated himself—his meddling with time—gives him away to the agent pursuing him, who knows he has a passion for timepieces. When Agent Wilson happens to glance out a window at the clock tower, “the hands of the clock move in reverse” as Rankin manipulates them. “This incident,” Moore observes, “is pregnant with symbolism. Time turned backwards leads one to the truth.” The turning back of the clock points to the Nazi’s carefully buried but ultimately inescapable past.
In analyzing these and other films, Moore demonstrates how the use of time in cinema has long reflected the “cosmological presumption”—that is, “the commonly held belief that the universe is intrinsically orderly,” as designed by a rational Creator. Whether or not we viewers recognize it—sometimes, perhaps, even when the filmmaker is not aware of it—the way time in a film so often carries us from order through disorder and back to order again is a sign of this worldview.
Those ticking clocks create tension because they warn us that, if order cannot be restored in time, chaos may ensue. Yet only the relentless passage of time can bring us to the point where order is restored. That paradox has been a recipe for both suspense and reassurance, almost from the very invention of cinema.
So in the next film you watch, keep an eye on any clocks that pop up. They’re probably there to unsettle you, and if the film is a well-made one, they’ll succeed. But at the same time, let them remind you of a deeper truth: Time is designed for us by the One who gives us all good gifts.