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

The first British film to which Joseph Losey finally revealed his name as director was his 1957 movie, Time without Pity. One might almost say that this was the first time, after his escape from the US, accused by the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of Communist ties, to England, that Losey admitted he was a home in a new world. One might describe this film, accordingly, as Losey’s open commitment to British cinema, a position which he would maintain throughout the rest of his life. The Wisconsin-born American had been forced, simply in order to survive, to become a Brit—a great loss for American cinema, but given his later association with Pinter, a greater gift to British filmmaking.

       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.

       Although, ultimately, the loving father is able to gather his wits enough to perceive what has really occurred—that, in fact, the brutal and ugly elder Stanford has also been the lover of Jenny and, when he could no longer control her, murdered the girl—he still has still no tangible evidence. His final (and desperate) decision, to help the guilty Stanford shoot him with the murderer’s own gun, a murder that will surely prove his involvement and free his son, nicely closes this tense thriller. But the problem is that we do not really know whether or not his ploy really works. Will Stanford find a way out, will the family again lie to protect their own, will the lawyers simply turn this into another unassociated event? We can never know. What we know only is that a father, a very failed father, has given up his own life in order to save his innocent son. If nothing else, Alec can now forgive his father for all his previous failures. Perhaps, even, the Stanford family can admit their own collusion in their protection of the murderer/philandering father. 
       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

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