Joseph Losey’s fortunes as an expatriate director took an upswing with this efficient, nervous and somewhat overcooked thriller with a daunting ticking-bomb deadline story gimmick — alcoholic wreck Michael Redgrave has only twenty hours to save his son from execution for murder. Losey racks up the tension, but he doesn’t give a hoot for Ben Barzman’s whodunnit scripting. Just the same, it’s good to see the director finally gaining traction — from this point forward most every Losey picture received serious international attention.
Time Without Pity
1957 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 89 min. / Street Date October 28, 2019 / available from Powerhouse Films UK (Region Free) / £15.99
Starring: Michael Redgrave, Leo McKern, Ann Todd, Peter Cushing, Alec McCowen, Lois Maxwell, Richard Wordsworth, Joan Plowright.
Cinematography: Freddie Francis
Film Editor: Alan Osbiston
Original Music: Tristram Cary
Written by Ben Barzman from a play by Emlyn Williams
Produced by John Arnold, Leon Clore, Anthony Simmons
Directed by Joseph Losey
Director Joseph Losey passed away in 1984, but he’s once again getting written up in newspaper articles, with a re-issue of his Alain Delon classic Mr. Klein. But back in 1957 Losey couldn’t even get his real name onto a screen credit. The first post- exile movie that he properly signed, Time Without Pity, was written by another famous blacklistee who used his real name as well. Ben Barzman (Christ in Concrete) later became known for his epic screenplays for Anthony Mann and others (El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Heroes of Telemark, The Blue Max). Here he tackles a crackling suspense tale, the kind of story with a built-in time-limit deadline. A man nearly goes crazy because he hasn’t enough time to save his son from the gallows — and Losey’s direction doesn’t even try to put a lid on the hysteria.
When his Hollywood career went South, Joseph Losey was just making a name for himself with films like The Boy With Green Hair and The Prowler. Then he got word that a subpoena from the HUAC had his name on it. Not wanting to be stuck in America unable to work (blacklistees’ passports were sometimes seized), he left for Europe. That’s when he found that the U.S. State Department and the American Legion leaned on French and Italian business contacts to try to keep certain undesirables from working abroad. After some bad experiences in Italy, Losey linked up with other expatriates like this film’s writer Ben Barzman, and filmed several shows under a nom de cinema. Yet it was a full five years before his real name appeared in a credit again.
The story begins in a nervous frenzy. Fresh from an alcoholic asylum, David Graham (Michael Redgrave) races to London: his son Alec (Alec McCowen) has been convicted of murder and is due to be hung the following morning. Alec’s lawyer (Peter Cushing) has given up on the case. David tries to conduct a desperate investigation, and thanks to the helpful Stanford family, he persists as best he can. Honor Stanford (Ann Todd) is an anti- capital punishment advocate and her big-businessman husband Robert (Leo McKern) makes a show of wanting to help get Alec freed. Yet David begins to think both are somehow implicated in the framing of his son. Under the pressure, David starts to drink again, jeopardizing his slim chances of saving Alec.
Joseph Losey’s last American films were aggressive noirs with a subversive attitude. This English production carries on as if nothing had changed in six years. There’s a definite social edge to the proceedings, as Barzman’s story implicates the state as uncaring about a railroaded young man and contemptuous of his alcoholic father. In fact, it’s surprising that no officials got involved with a story that suggests that the English justice system could so easily be thwarted. The villain of course turns out to be an arrogant industrialist, a powerful man who abuses his authority. David’s one-day ordeal is broken up into standard ‘interview’ scenes with eccentric suspects, as in any whodunnit. Each member of the expensive cast gets at the most a scene or two apiece.
A swift succession of characters reject David out of hand — a showgirl (Joan Plowright) who was the murdered girl’s sister, an attractive woman who was promoted at the Stanford motor works soon after the murder (Lois Maxwell, later of the James Bond movies ↑ ), and her suspicious mother (Renee Huston of The Horse’s Mouth and The Flesh and the Fiends), who puts David Graham on the wrong track.
Time Without Pity does crank up considerable tension, aided by Redgrave’s unrelenting performance. Clocks stick out at us from everywhere to remind us that time is slipping away; one woman has a room filled with alarm clocks. David Graham has every reason to go off his rocker – barely ambulatory after another drinking binge, he’s rejected by most everyone he meets, including his poor son. When they speak through a prison grille, the son can barely hold himself together. The setup predates the communication crisis in Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low. David’s snooping only arouse more hostility. Nothing is proven, and even the sympathetic Honor Stanford (Ann Todd) is too frightened or demoralized to help him in the open. It’s up to David to solve the problem, to clear his son’s name and somehow win back his self-respect. His solution is pretty extreme, the stuff of macabre tales (or questionable thriller writing).
The movie is strange — was it not meant to be a whodunnit thriller? Director Losey seems uninterested in that goal. The killer is revealed in the very first shot, yet the movie goes forward as if his identity is a secret, even as the same man rants and raves and behaves ridiculously guilty through most of the movie. Losey clearly wants to highlight the struggle, not the mystery … or perhaps the story (from a play by Emlyn Williams) wants to indict the privileged wealthy as arrogantly trying to blame their crimes on working people. Time Without Pity has the slightly overboiled, hysterical tone of some of Losey’s earlier work. His last American film The Big Night has the same emphasis on desperation, and is also about a strained father/son relationship. When Losey’s heroes lose their cool, they really lose it; despite the A-plus quality cast list, in some scenes Losey allows Redgrave and Leo McKern to go way over the top, screaming and yelling. Losey and writer Barzman make sure that the folk that might help — lawmen, politicians, newspaper editors — instead give poor David grief, rubbing salt in his psychic wounds. Yet the time limit format holds us in suspense.
Detractors of director Losey’s later and more self-conscious movies (The Servant, Modesty Blaise, Accident) would sometimes point to Time Without Pity as less pretentious. That’s not entirely fair, as Losey’s openly artsy later films were brave enough to dispose of the crutch of an identifiable genre. But Losey’s penchant for artistic symbolism is in full force. The character of Robert Stanford is frequently equated with a bull in a painting on the wall of his luxury flat — where the murder took place. Stanford’s motorcar test track is decorated with an eerie field of statuary, continuing a through-line of theatrical decor imposed on realistic settings that pervades much of Losey’s work. Even Tristram Cary’s music is overly emphatic, underlining ‘significant’ dialogue a bit too strongly.
It’s a toss-up as to whether the powerhouse acting helps or hinders the show. Few actors can be accused of underplaying. Michael Redgrave’s tormented drunk David Graham holds the center. He’s sort of a less sympathetic variation on the psycho ventriloquist of Dead of Night from twelve years earlier; Redgrave does everything but let his voice crack in the same way. Graham is humiliated but stands firm. He seems so broken and fragile that his resolve to justify his existence as a man and a father is nothing short of Homeric.
Perhaps the goal was to put Michael Redgrave through a delirious ordeal similar to that of James Mason in the grim classic Odd Man Out. If we feel the tension is just too strained, it’s that David Graham is supposed to be wiped out, despairing and defeatist, while simultaneously making the forceful moves that will wrap up the case.
Leo McKern was not a big star at this time — his movie the previous year was X The Unknown, a Hammer film that Joseph Losey was supposed to direct, until a blacklisting issue caught up with him. McKern is less interesting as the bluffing, bossy company owner. He handles his dialogue well, but is directed to leap into bellowing bombast at a moment’s notice, losing his temper in a way that would convince anyone that he’s hiding dark secrets. Stanford is especially obnoxious when acting the victim: “Why are you doing this to me!!?”
Did Losey have a reputation that attracted the top-notch cast? Ann Todd’s role doesn’t seem consistent – why does Honor not speak out with what she knows? This was Peter Cushing’s breakout year with Hammer Films. His lawyer is meant to be ineffective, a choice that doesn’t allow Cushing to play to his strengths, so his presence is muted as well. However, Alec McCowen (A Night to Remember, Travels with My Aunt) makes a permanent impression as a haunted man whose time is running out. In her short scene, Lois Maxwell is suitably gorgeous and venal. Joan Plowright (later to marry Laurence Olivier) is both cruel and sensitive as a woman who blames the wrong man. In a transparent scene about capital punishment, the great Richard Wordsworth (The Quatermass Xperiment) plays an inquisitive member of parliament.
The production is certainly well-mounted, with its scene at the car-testing track … the ‘Stanford’ test car appears to be one of those old Gull Wing Mercedes-Benz models. I believe that some exteriors are slightly under-cranked, to speed up the action: Graham’s arrival at the airport is rendered more ‘nervous’ and staccato. As was the custom at the time, good B&W traveling mattes are used to film dialogue scenes in automobiles.
Talking to critic Tom Milne, Joseph Losey described finding Time Without Pity to be a story with nothing to say, so he proudly amplified its capital punishment statement. He was elated when it earned him some recognition in France. Milne compared it to ‘hysterical’ films by other cult directors, namely Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly and Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow. From this point forward Losey’s fortunes improved, until, with Eva and The Servant, he became one of the most celebrated of art-film directors.
Powerhouse Indicator’s Region Free Blu-ray of Time Without Pity is a polished widescreen (1:66) scan with razor-sharp audio. I first saw the show on a full-frame 2004 Home Vision DVD, that was rather light and had slightly distorted ‘crunchy’ audio, the kind that only gets less distinct as the volume is turned up. I’m still hanging onto that disc — it contains an okay transfer of Joseph Losey’s early industrial film Pete Roleum and His Cousins.
Indicator’s extras again cast a large net. The articulate, thoughtful Neil Sinyard performs the audio commentary, while Losey speaks for himself in a long audio interview from 1973. Losey’s son, filmmaker Gavrik Losey, talks about him in a video extra. A TV spot for a malted milk drink will please Losey detractors — it’s so bad, I can’t imagine anybody using it. The booklet included in first-pressing discs has quality content as well. The Tom Milne interview is there, in addition to a Robert Murphy essay and a curious Jeff Billington article about a ‘culture war’ in France, around a group of Cahiers du cinema critics that frequented the McMahon, a Paris movie house that catered to U.S. pictures.
And of course, the selected review excerpts in Indicator booklets are always an entertaining cross section: “the characters (in Pity) are continually occupied with feverish cinematic ‘business’ — newspaper editors punctuating their conversation with dart-throwing, a drunken old woman in a crowded room full of alarm clocks.” I have to laugh — in the early ’70s, our film professors couldn’t help but give us the idea that such things were the mark of an ‘important’ director.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Time Without Pity
Region Free Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Audio lecture interview with Joseph Losey and Dilys Powell (1973, 80 mins); audio commentary with Neil Sinyard; The Sins of the Father (2019, 16 mins) with filmmaker Gavrik Losey, son of Joseph Losey; Horlicks: Steven Turner (1960, 1 min): TV commercial by Joseph Losey; 40-page booklet with an essay by Robert Murphy, a Tom Milne / Joseph Losey interview excerpt, Jeff Billington on ‘the MacMahonists’, and an overview of critical responses.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 13, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson