Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Joseph Losey | Time without Pity
racing against the clock
by Douglas Messerli
Ben Barzman (writer, based on a play by Emlyn Williams), Joseph Losey (director) Time without Pity / 1957
Time without Pity is a kind of grade B American-like film that projects the US paranoid views of 1957 upon a British landscape, connecting the broader-speaking American world by imagining a Canadian alcoholic, David Graham (played by the very British Michael Redgrave) who suddenly wakes up in a Montreal recovery hospital with the revelation that his son, back in England, has been convicted to murder during the father’s mental and physical blackout. How does a young man—innocent we know from the very first “murder” scene—possibly forgive a father who has totally abandoned him, not only during the trial but throughout his life? And how might the father, Graham, reclaim his son’s love and admiration after that abandonment? There is, obviously, no answer. It is an impossible dilemma, demonstrated late in the movie when the son, previously inurned to his own death, breaks down and demands his father “save him” from execution. Graham tries to do so in a period of just one day, attempting to behave as the detective which, even he must admit, he is not qualified for. He can only track down the pieces of evidence, such as they exist.
The problem is that there is no “evidence.” As the still often drunken man begins to perceive the truth, such as it is, he gradually discovers that everything that matters concerns the Stanford family, including its wealthy automotive-loving Robert (Leo McKern), his wife Honor (Ann Todd), who unbeknownst to even herself, has grown to love Graham’s son, Alec (Alec McCowen), and their adopted son, Brian (Paul Daneman), who knows more that he is ever quite willing to reveal, but, nonetheless, makes it clear that someone in his family is willing to commit suicide for some terrible act.
The real villain of this tense noir is time, as Graham has only a few hours to track down the real killer of Alec’s girlfriend, Jenny Cole. And throughout this work, Losey toys with us and his hero by presenting characters obsessed with clocks and alcohol which both tell and block out time’s presence. The most remarkable figure in this this film is the evil secretary’s mother, Mrs. Marker (Renée Houston), who loves her alcoholic nipping just about as much as the numerous clocks she keeps about her, all ringing, at different moments, to tell her that a time has come to which she no longer need care to respond. And everywhere in Losey’s film, clocks announce the ticking away of time, making it apparent to the increasingly drunken father that he is not truly able to produce enough proof to free his son before his early morning hanging.
In many senses, this film recalls Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder of just 3 years before, where the innocent heroine is freed only a few hours from her court-ordered death. But Losey’s film is far more complex: first, he makes it clear that the entire governmental penalty for death is a sinful act; and, despite the polite statements of government officials and prison officers, that they have created an impenetrable bubble around the sanctioned murder that is about to take place. No one seems to want to question their own miscomprehensions. Only the father seems to know that his gentle son could not have committed this terrible act.
If Losey’s film is not a masterpiece, it is a beginning of a rich career wherein he brings up, again and again, just such questions of what truth is and who obscures it so that it becomes almost impossible to perceive. One might argue that Losey’s whole career is based on the very issues that this early film suggests.
Los Angeles, March 22, 2017