Archive for Joan Plowright

Tick Tock

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2008 by dcairns

TIME WITHOUT PITY continues my exploration of the work of Joseph Losey — pith helmet on, machete in hand.

The plot — Michael Redgrave is an alcoholic novelist newly emerged from a sanatorium to discover his son convicted of murder and due to be executed. Armed only with an unshakable faith in his boy’s innocence, Redgrave attempts to redeem his dissolute life and failed parenthood by finding some “tangible evidence” to save the son from execution.

The script is faintly derived from Emlyn Williams’ play Someone Waiting, but screenwriter Ben Barzman  (a fellow blacklistee of Losey) has completely exploded the plot and reassembled it in a radical new shape: Williams’ play takes place entirely AFTER the son’s execution. Despite completely remodelling the narrative trajectory, Barzman retains most of Williams’ characters, and some of the clues by which the murder is cunningly solved, including a very unusual alibi.

The film boldly begins by revealing the true killer, in a starkly lit murder scene that certainly catches the attention, with Tristram Carey’s clamorous score blasting at us, swaying lights and looming shadows, a sexy victim, and the bulbous form of Leo “Number Two” McKern. Nevertheless, I felt it may have been a mistake to discard any mystery at this early point. It’s true that Leo McKern turning out to be the killer would be unlikely to surprise anyone, but perhaps a solution might have been to recast the part with someone softer and rewrite the character to make him less of a shouty caricature of capitalist vulgarity. Without someone as blazingly guilty as McKern, naturally shifty performers like Paul Daneman and Ann Todd would have moved into prime suspect mode. But then we wouldn’t have McKern, which would be kind of a shame.

As Redgrave begins to investigate, Losey lets rips with some mirror-maze visuals and allows us to see just how pathetic a figure the hero is. This really works. Not only is the man faced with a horrific deadline (like THE BIG NIGHT, this film compresses its narrative into a tight frame), but he’s hopelessly ill-equipped, both physically and psychologically, to tackle the task in hand. All he has going for him is utter desperation.

Redgrave is the perfect man for the job — in his youth, the kind of light comedian Britain abounded in, as demonstrated in Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES, by middle age Redgrave was our finest neurotic, able to make weakness of any kind both sympathetic and compelling. He’s perfectly fitted to this role, and makes one wish the film were about, say, 15% better to bring it up to his superb level. 

Guest stars! Peter Cushing as an expository plot function; Joan Plowright as a showgirl (!); Renee Houston as a drunken Scotswoman surrounded by clocks. Houston, a recent discovery of ours, brings a welcome touch of music hall grotesquerie to any film. Here she’s in full harridan mode, with Bride of Frankenstein hair, but brings enough nuance to her role to justify the excessive symbolism of her cacophonously ticking, ringing and chiming flat. Hefting a clock, she slurs:

“One of the little pleasures in life, Mr. Gage, I can now give myself: just to hear it ring, and know you don’t have to go anywhere.”

Good scenes like the above, and each of Redgrave’s painful visits to his son (each starting with calm and reconciliation, degenerating into despair and recrimination, driving home more fully each time what a failure our hero is), are somewhat let down by bad ones. A visit to the offices of an MP campaigning against the death penalty allows for some dramatically redundant and boring speechifying, delivering points which should be illustrated dramatically by the plot. (But is that a frivolous Dirk Bogarde cameo, or just some cut-price Dirkalike?)

Losey’s artsier moments are enjoyable, but his more restrained ones are excellent too. Tracking from a wide shot into an over-the-shoulder, moving his actors out of frame to have them rediscovered by the camera seconds later, he choreographs the film with economy and elegance, with impactful cutting and subtly emphatic framing. British producers hoping for a bit of Hollywood dynamism from their blacklisted Americans got their money’s worth from Losey.

Not to spoil the end, but of course Redgrave must stake his own life to save his son’s — here there’s evidence of censorship and mucking about, with unlikely carelessness with guns and lip-flap from a major character, who presumably said something politically or morally questionable (the more you look at censorship practice the more it always seems to have a political point to limit thought). But the main thrust of the conclusion is excellent, even if the details are weakened — it confirms Lars Von Trier’s verdict on capital punishment: a very bad thing, but excellent for drama.

(But before you ask — I LOATHE Von Trier’s DANCER IN THE DARK.)