Monday, October 1, 2012

Movie Monday: Time Limit

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1957 war drama Time Limit!

I had never heard of this film before, but I dig Richard Widmark, and the movie had a good cast, so I thought why not give it a spin (or click, more accurately):
Time Limit stars Widmark as Colonel William Edwards, who is charged with investigating a case against Major Henry Cargill (Richard Basehart), who is accused of collaborating with the enemy while he was imprisoned at a North Korean POW camp.

But right from the get-go, Edwards feels there's more to this story than the open-and-shut case everyone is telling him it is:
First off, Cargill refuses to defend himself. Second, the supposed collaboration occurred immediately after the deaths of two other men in the unit, and third, the surviving soldiers all have the same story about what happened, repeating each other almost verbatim. That includes Lt. George Miller (played by a very young Rip Torn):
Pressure mounts on Edwards just to wrap the case up, but he resists. The father of one of the dead men is also a General, and he strongly suggests that Edwards stop digging and just move on.

Edwards talks further with Cargill and Miller, as well as Cargill's wife, who reveals that her husband has been a shell of a man since he got home. Edwards
right hand man, Sgt. Baker (the great Martin Balsam) also provides pressure, but in a different way: fiercely loyal to Edwards, he tries to talk his boss into dropping the whole thing, afraid that it will ruin his career in the Army.

For most of the film, all the action is centered around Edwards' office and the homes of who he visits. But as the truth of what really happened in the POW camp starts to come out, it flashes back to Korea:
Cargill starts to crack under the pressure, as does Lt. Miller, their stories start to fray at the edges, which only emboldens Edwards further. In a crackerjack extended sequence we see how the two soldiers ended up dead, which is full of tension and excitement, as good as anything in the classic Stalag 17.

Edwards finally gets to the truth, and Time Limit wraps up with a long, talky, but superbly delivered scene of Cargill and the General arguing about what, exactly, a soldier's duty is. Widmark's character is mostly standing off to side, watching these two men go at it, which (IMO) was a gutsy thing for the movie to try--pushing your main character out of the action for the final third. Dramatically it makes total sense, but it's still something you don't see much of in movies.

Time Limit was the sole directing effort by legendary actor Karl Malden, who took on the project as a favor to his friend Widmark, who produced. While most of the scenes in the various offices and homes are solid, if unremarkable (they feel and look a lot of the low budget live dramas in TV's Golden Age), the sequences set in Korea are superb; Malden knew how to sustain a level of tension and dread that, like I said above, compare favorably against the more renowned war thrillers like Stalag 17 and The Manchurian Candidate.

Also helping make the film an underrated gem is the screenplay by novelist/playwright/screenwriter Henry Denker--it's taut and sharp, with the characters interacting in a very direct way (even when they're being evasive). He/it manages to get away with pushing the envelope as to content, as well: while talking with Cargill's wife (June Lockhart!) she mentions that she and her husband "haven't been to bed together in five months." The line is hardly shocking now, but even mentioning a sexual relationship in 1957 was still pretty risky; maybe it's was Lockhart's fairly de-sexualized look that helped the line get by the censors, who were probably busy dealing with Otto Preminger's movies, which were pushing buttons all over the place.

Time Limit is a really solid war/legal drama, full of good performances and some exceptional scenes; it deserves more recognition than it currently has. It's well worth taking a look at, especially for free on Netflix WI.

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