TIME WITHOUT PITY (Joseph Losey, 1957)

One of the powerhouses of the 1950s, Time Without Pity is the first film that Joseph Losey signed with his own name after being blacklisted and fleeing the U.S. In effect, it’s the film in which Losey proclaimed himself a Brit, as eager and willing to skewer the establishment there as he had done on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s the one with Michael Redgrave, in a bravura performance, as the alcoholic father in a race against the clock to save his son, whom we know is innocent, from being executed for murder. The film takes aim at capital punishment.
     It does so unsteadily, it seems to me, and stridently, and its explanation of war—another blacklistee, Ben Barzman, wrote the script—is odd. A character says that the object of war is to defend one’s own life, not kill the enemy; but more often, battle by battle, it is to take and hold territory, which indeed requires killing the enemy that currently holds the territory. So there’s an entire aspect of the film that fails to convince me at least.
     But the human drama! In a telling moment the father shouts out, “I am not a detective!”—and indeed he isn’t, but that is what he has to make himself into in order to try to save his son’s life. The whole adventure is emotionally spectacular as he stretches himself to the limit as only hours remain to find some tangible piece of evidence that might exonerate his son, and as he more than once, in despair, dips into the well of alcohol that had prevented him from being a responsive father in the past.
     Redgrave is phenomenal. On the other hand, Leo McKern, as the father of the convicted boy’s best friend, is shrill and over the top. But McKern’s character is desperate, too. We are able thus to compare desperation with moral grace and desperation without it; one father loves his son, while the other loves only himself.
     Joan Plowright: you will not believe your eyes, how young, how cute she is here—and magnificent as the murdered girl’s sister, who at first is hateful towards Redgrave’s character for the sake of her sister’s memory, but later, when it becomes obvious to her that the boy is innocent, so sincerely, humbly apologetic. (This is a 1957 film—that’s the year Plowright fell in with Larry O. on stage, playing his daughter in Osborne’s The Entertainer.) Ann Todd! This is wicked of Losey—a glorious inside joke. Todd, looking lovely, acts in a different key from everyone else: she gives a Hollywood performance, a fact underscored by the luminous closeups that Losey applies to her famous face. It’s a dig; it would be interesting to know whether Todd herself was in on it.
     The narrative is resolved in a jaw-dropping manner, with a resolution that no one could possibly see coming. Indeed, although I had seen the film before, it came again as a surprise. What a finish!
     Alec McCowen plays the boy who is headed for a hanging.
     If you’ve been a neglectful or emotionally distant parent, be buoyed by the fact that, so long as your son or daughter hasn’t yet ascended the scaffold, redemption is possible. The father that Redgrave plays gives his all! (Correctly, the film leaves undetermined whether his monstrous/gracious ploy works.)
     One thing more: the music in this film is madness! But it becomes one more distancing device in an unsentimental film by a man who had been mentored by Brecht himself.

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