The Eight Best Movie Clocks

Clocks are an excellent moviemaking device. They’re an easy way to establish time frames for viewers. And more importantly, they’re ripe with symbolism–a character’s time is running out, time has run out, how much time is left, and the like. They can also be a wonderful symbol of precision–”like clockwork”, so to speak. Here are the eight best movie clocks:

Back to the Future (1985)
A simple flyer urging 1985 Hill Valley residents to save the clock tower, stuffed in Marty’s pocket, alerted 1955 Doc Brown to an easy source for 1.21 gigawatts of power, thereby helping Marty return to the future. And of course, there’s the obvious symbolism of a sleepy town trapped in 1950s nostalgia. Amongst most standard moviegoers, there isn’t a more celebrated movie clock. Great Scott!

Metropolis (1927)
Here, a clock is used to illustrate the passage of time. Metropolis takes place in the future, and mirrors the meticulously regimented day of the underground workers. In this clip, we see Freder, the protagonist, taking on an arduous and monotonous 10 hour shift working on the clock:

Safety Last (1923)
Any short list of the most iconic images of the  silent film era would be incomplete without Harold Lloyd’s body, frantically clutching the hand of a clock atop a skyscraper.

Hugo (2011)
Speaking of the clock in Safety Last, Martin Scorsese mimicked the image in Hugo, his loving homage to early film. And while the image of Hugo hanging from a clock hand above the streets of Paris is an iconic one, Scorsese didn’t stop there with the clock imagery. The entire film revolves around clock-like mechanical gears, both literally and figuratively, with Hugo constantly seeking mechanical parts to put together his incomplete mechanical man. Scorsese even emphasizes it in the film’s opening shots (made more poignant in 3D), with an overhead shot of the moving parts of Paris, all moving in clockwork time.

Wild Strawberries (1957)
Ingmar Bergman’s take on clocks is powerful and perfect in establishing the tone for his film. Dr. Isak Borg is about to embark on a journey in which he questions his whole life, realizing that he’s old and approaching death. Early on, Bergman gives Borg a dream sequence in which he sees a clock with no hands (symbol: he’s on the verge of having no time left), which segues into an old man who has no face. It ends with Bergman merging a corpse with the squeaky wheel of a death carriage, which just happens to sound a lot like a crying infant. It’s the life cycle, all whipped together in a tiny 30 second clip. Here’s the full dream sequence:

High Noon (1952)
There is an incredible choreography that goes on in the denouement of High Noon, with the editing, the score, the foley artistry, and the expressions on the faces of the cast all working in lockstep with the swinging of a clock’s pendulum. It’s one of the best movie scenes you’ll ever find and establishes perfect pacing leading to the showdown at the end. You can find the clip here and I’d urge you to check it out.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
The giant clock atop the skyscraper housing Hudsucker Industries even plays a key role in the film, showing the stoppage of time caused by Moses, the janitor. This allows the ghost of Waring Hudsucker to appear before Norville and alter the film’s ending.

The Stranger (1946)
The clock in The Stranger works on multiple levels. Charles Rankin (alias Franz Kindler, a Nazi war criminal hiding in plain sight, played by Orson Welles) is trying to conceal his true identity from Nazi hunter, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson). The only thing authorities know about Rankin/Kindler is his obsession with clocks. Naturally, the film’s finale takes place in an elaborate clock tower. Rankin’s obsession with clocks alerts us that his time, like Isak Borg’s in Wild Strawberries, may be running out. It also tips us off that his meticulous care for clocks is indicative of his controlling nature.


22 Comments

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22 responses to “The Eight Best Movie Clocks

  1. Great list. Glad to see The Stranger on this list. You should also check out the Ray Milland noir The Big Clock. It’s a nice little gem of a picture. I think I’d also include all the clocks from the opening scene of Back to the Future. Just because, Back to the Future.

  2. Welles’ face in “The Stranger” is priceless. Real good movie.

  3. It wouldn’t be a list like this without Back to the Future, but, c’mon…you left out both Hermione Granger’s Time-Turner *and* Cogsworth from Beauty and the Beast? Hello, McFly?! No, just joking…good stuff as always.

  4. Phil

    When I was in high school, I had a clock based on the shot from Safety Last which included a Harold Lloyd figure hanging from the minute hand. I wish I still had it! Great topic – I was going to suggest The Big Clock, but Dave beat me to it.

  5. I used to be a tour guide at Universal Studios when they were filming “Back to the Future”. After the movie came out, I pointed out the clock in “Courthouse Square” to tour guests three times a day, every day.

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  7. I don’t think the ‘Metropolis’ clock was meant to tell time. Look at the way he constantly moves the hands around the face. Plus the third arm moves too fast to be an hour hand. My impression was always that it was some manner of machine.

  8. rtm

    You always come up w/ the most ingenious list, John! I love clocks so it’s such a treat to watch HUGO in 3D with all those glorious vintage clock! Maybe it’s growing up with my grandma who owned this big grandfather vintage clock, it must have been a hundred years old! It has that special chime every hour but at noon or midnight it’s the most dramatic. I should check out these other movies that have clocks in them! 🙂

  9. Brilliant list. I nominate the clock scene in Wild Strawberries for Best Dream Sequence of All Time.

  10. There are some clocks (The Stranger) that I didn’t remembered at first! Nice list though! I love Wild Strawberries and it makes me want to watch it right now!
    I’m very ashamed to say that I still haven’t seen Safety Last… I’ll check it soon as for Hugo.

  11. hello, john,

    what an awesome list! really appreciate this post. i remember some of these movies, they’re great. thanks for sharing. 🙂

  12. Once upon a time in the West, Jackie Chan’s Project A.

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  14. Herbert Rogers

    Please…would someone tell me the Name of that magnificent-looking MantleClock on (Jimmy Stewart’s apartment Mantel) in Hitchkock’s REAR WINDOW? I’ve GOT to find one.
    Thanks

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