Monday, September 14, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Time Limit" (1957)

"Time Limit" was the only film directed by Karl Malden, and it's probably better for everyone that he spent the rest of his career in front of the camera instead of behind it. I say this not as an insult to his filmmaking skills, which were adequate, but in praise of his inimitable power and intensity as an actor.

Malden himself seemed to agree, writing in his autobiography that he "preferred being a good actor to being a fairly good director."

"Time Limit" is an effective if rather stodgy and stagey legal drama that could've been directed by just about anyone. It only has three locations, and if you left instructions for where the cinematography should set up the cameras, similar edicts for lighting, props, etc. and a word or two for the actors, the film literally could've directed itself.

Unsurprisingly, it's based on a play by Henry Denker and Ralph Berkey, with Denker doing the screenplay. Some stage-to-screen adaptations gain power through a confinement of space, time and characters -- "12 Angry Men" being the classic example -- but others like this one wind up feeling crimped.

It's the sort of picture where characters inevitably make big, stentorian speeches about the fallibility of mankind and such -- always while standing. Have you ever noticed people in movies never deliver a key soliloquy sitting down? Personally, I think better off my feet.

Richard Widmark, who starred in and was a producer of the film, was the one who recruited Malden to direct. No doubt he was thinking of Malden's masterful speech from "On the Waterfront" a few years earlier, and hoping the actor who delivered that could help him craft his own performance.

Widmark is good in it, as a conscientious military lawyer investigating a former POW accused of treason, though I've always found him more interesting in villainous or ambivalent roles. Something about his face, a set sternness of expression, a certain mania behind the eyes, lends itself to frightening rather than reassuring characters.

Major Harry Gargill (a solid Richard Basehart) has been accused of collaborating with the enemy while a prisoner of war during the Korean conflict. He gave speeches to his fellow soldiers urging them to embrace communist ideals, made radio broadcasts falsely admitting to Americans using germ warfare against the North Koreans, etc.

It seems the proverbial open-and-shut case, with all of Cargill's fellow POWs testifying against him, and Cargill declaring himself guilty, refusing to offer any kind of defense for his action.

To top things off, General Connors (Carl Benton Reid) has ordered the investigating officer, Lt. Col. William Edwards (Widmark), to hurry up his recommendation for court martial. The general's own son died in the same POW camp, so he has a personal interest in the outcome.

But Edwards can't let the case go, and keeps digging further. He even visits Cargill's wife (June Lockhart), who offers her own affecting song of despair about the sad man who has returned to her from war -- but no concrete information.

It's up to Edwards to see if the truth lines up with the facts.

Martin Balsam is a hoot as Edwards' conniving sergeant, who offers advice and scuttlebutt from the career Army office pool. He warns the colonel that his career is in danger if he doesn't bring in a judgement quickly -- stamped with the right recommendation. Dolores Michaels assists as the wily secretary with a background in law; she and Edwards are implied an attraction.

A very young and virtually unrecognizable Rip Torn, in one of his earliest screen roles, turns up as young Lieutenant Miller, who provides damning testimony and a suspiciously easygoing manner.

Eventually, a peek of light appears in the carefully constructed wall of lies. It seems a lot of very bad things went on inside that POW camp, briefly seen in a trio of flashback scenes. Lots were drawn, vows were made, dark deeds committed.

Caught between the ethos of General Connors and that of Major Cargill, Edwards has to weigh the merits of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons versus the right thing for the wrong reasons.

"Time Limit" is one of those well-meaning films that wears its good intentions a bit too too openly on its sleeve. It's also burdened by that awful, generic-sounding title. It refers to the idea that a man can be heroic his entire life, but eventually pressure and circumstance can force anyone to break. Do the limits of his willpower negate any prior good done in a man's life?

I do applaud the movie for its willingness to embrace ambivalence, and honor military ideals while questioning if they can be applicable even to the foulest of circumstance. The film ends with Cargill headed to certain court martial, with Edwards promising to personally defend him. Sometimes asking the right questions is more important than obtaining definitive answers.

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