Visual Culture

Clocks in Cinema

We’ve taken a few minutes out of our busy schedule to bring you a selection of great scenes from cinema that incorporate – you guessed it – that temporal behemoth, clocks. The reason/excuse this time being the publication of Helen Powell’s new book, Stop the Clocks!: Time and Narrative in Cinema. Admittedly our compilation isn’t as impressive as Christian Marclay’s moving-image installation The Clock, a 24-hour montage of film and television clips with glimpses of clocks, watches, and people saying what time it is, but then it wasn’t meant to be. Also, we haven’t included Metropolis.

Back to the Future (John Landis, 1985)

Back to the Future‘You’re late! Do you have no concept of time?

As ‘Doc’ Christopher Lloyd (at his erratic, madcap best) swings around comically from the clocktower in the climatic end scenes  we’re reminded of both the centrality and utter insignificance of time in Back to the Future. What I mean to say is, having made a sci-fi adventure film in which time-travel is ostensibly the driving force (pun intended), one would think the writers/director would have been more diligent in constructing a narrative that explored ideas of history, chronology, temporality or, at the very least, produce a film that had something to do with time and the passing thereof. Instead, this ends up being a rather classic tale of the small man (quite literally in Michael J Fox’s case) overcoming the bully, albeit in quite an unusual way. It’s rather a pity that some of the existentially interesting aspects of time travelling aren’t explored but I do remember being thrilled by the prospect of hoverboards, DeLoreans and self-tying trainers (somehow more exciting than the capacity for altering the course of history). And, where they fail in sensible plotting they make up for in the disturbing pseudo-freudian possibilities afforded by being contemporaneous with a parent, ‘Whoa. Wait a minute, Doc. Are you trying to tell me that my mother has got the hots for me?.’ LT

Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

‘In the early hours of June 1st, I had a weird and very unpleasant dream.’

The moment you dislike a dream sequence in a film is the moment you’ve given up on life. In Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Professor Isak Borg goes to Stockholm to accept an honorary degree. Elderly, widowed, approaching death and living in self-imposed isolation, Borg re-evaluates his life through dreams, nightmares and the companionship of his daughter in law on the day-long journey to receive his award. In one particular dream, Borg sees a clock with no hands which segues into an old man without a face (oops, symbolism). The corpse, accompanied by the squeak of a carriage and the crying of a baby, has a whole Elton John ‘Circle of Life’ thing going (which is a good thing). TA

Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)


Time’s relentlessness has been known to stir up feelings of our own impending death; and whilst we struggle with that question ‘what does it all mean?!’, we ultimately realise it means nothing beyond the meaning we choose to give it. On the other hand, time also lends itself for product placement in the form of watches; and none come more shameless than this from James Bond’s big Bourne-Identity-influenced comeback in 2006, Casino Royale. FYI, mine’s a Seiko. TA

Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

‘Do you realise I haven’t kissed you in over an hour?’

When it comes to clocks in cinema, the films of Orson Welles are quite fruitful. Not only do we have Harry Lime’s famous cuckoo clock speech in The Third Man and Franz Kindler’s grizzly clock tower death in the 1946 film noir The Stranger, but we also have the infamous 3-minute crane shot that begins Touch of Evil. We’re on the US/Mexico border and a man places a bomb (with a clock timer) in a US contractor’s car; at which point the camera floats through the streets of Mexico, following a young couple while we wait for the inevitable explosion to catapult us into the action. Despite Charlton Heston running around the entire picture in ridiculous brown-face (he’s meant to be Mexican), Touch of Evil is arguably the last great Hollywood film-noir. TA

My Cousin Vinny (Jonathan Lynn, 1992)

‘My biological clock is ticking!’

If it’s a wet weekend, or you’re poorly, there’s no better film to watch than My Cousin Vinny. The story of two young New Yorkers put on trial for a murder they didn’t commit whilst travelling through Alabama, and the attempts of their cousin, Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) – street-smart but inexperienced – to defend them is a pitch-perfect fish(es) out of water flick. Funny, touching and warm-hearted, it certainly is. The film’s highlight comes in the form of Vinny’s girlfriend, Mona Lisa (Marisa Tomei), who bickers and gesticulates while remaining tender and loveable. The Academy seemed to agree, and awarded Tomei the 1993 award for best supporting actress. TA

Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001)

‘I go salsa dancing with my confusion.’

In Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001)time is fractal and refractive, folding in on itself endlessly – this is because the protagonist is unable to wake up. We accompany an inquiring, philosophical, long-haired American youth through his many dreams, witnessing discursive conversations with various thinkers and theorists in fragmented interviews. The unreliability of time, and its irrelevance to these dreams, is shown by the bedside clock’s liquid digital chaos. Whenever it appears we know a new adventure (and animation style! – Waking Life, like Linklater’s 2006 movie A Scanner Darkly, features film overdrawn with rotoscoped animation techniques) has commenced. The hypnagogic (that’s right) disorientation of this clock is something we can all relate to – if only all dreams could be so cogent and profitable! DH

Safety Last (Fred C. Newmeyer, 1923)

‘The pain was considerable, but trivial compared with my mental state.’

A clocks in cinema compilation without the clock scene from Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last would be like pancakes without lemon and sugar – a wasted venture.


2 thoughts on “Clocks in Cinema

  1. Great post. Think I’ll use it as a guide for my next few dvd purchases. I’d completely forgotten about ‘My Cousin Vinny’ until this moment! Thank you for reminding me of one of my guilty 90s pleasures …

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