2017-02-12

sovay: (Sydney Carton)
I finally managed to watch a movie for the first time in weeks. (It's been a bad few weeks.) I am coming to the conclusion that I really like the films of Joseph Losey. For some reason I had gotten the picture of him as an icy stylist—clever, symmetrical, but cold. I could almost see it with The Damned (1963), a deliberately off-kilter mash-up of biker pulp and pre-apocalyptic science fiction, but The Prowler (1951) isn't cold and neither is Time Without Pity (1957), which I watched last night. If anything, attempting to describe it to [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel, I kept coming back to the adjective hysterical, which is not the first state associated with most cinematic explorations of masculinity. But it suits the film. The plot is conventional; the transforms Losey runs on it are not.

To begin with, as if in a British B-noir Columbo, the audience witnesses the murder. We don't yet know who these people are in the darkened flat with modern art on the walls, but when the girl jolts back over the couch and her head rolls like a broken doll, we get a good look at the middle-aged man crouching over her, the fury that thickened his face slackening into panicky horror. He blunders out of the room and the titles come up over the nearest painting, a sort of Guernica-looking thing of a wild bull at bay. When we see him again, we'll recognize him. But when David Graham (Michael Redgrave) lurches into London clutching a suitcase and blinking in the early morning sun, jet-lagged, red-eyed, and newly sprung from the Montreal sanitarium where he was drying out from his latest fall off the wagon, he doesn't know who he's looking for: he just knows that his son Alec (Alec McCowen, R.I.P.) can't have committed the domestic murder for which he'll hang in twenty-four hours unless David can scrounge new evidence out of a case that opened and shut months ago. Redgrave got my attention some years ago with his almost subliminal acting in The Browning Version (1951) and here he shows the same naturalistic care for a difficult character. The parental fuck-up making a heroic effort for the life of their child is a pattern I've seen enough times now that I gather it's a popular anxiety,1 but David is an especially unprepossessing variation, a tall man in a trenchcoat and a suit that was cut when there was substantially more of him, his hair smeared stickily back from his face which looks shapeless under its flop sweat and five o'clock shadow. He blinks a lot, winces, wipes his hands over his face in a gesture that is half shame and half unabashed hiding. He is not stupid and he loves his son, even if his early promise as a novelist melted at the bottom of a glass and his very real affection for the boy snarled in the guilt-games of a messy divorce. But his social instincts misfire so reliably that the audience watches each interaction to see not whether he's going to screw it up, but how badly. He's pushy where he should be patient, hesitant where he should assert himself. He has trouble with the telephone, which is such a contemporary social anxiety that I was fascinated to see it captured on film in 1957. He has his greatest success as an amateur detective when he just keeps his mouth shut and lets people tell him the things they assume he already knows. As a result, the premise is a classic race against time, but the events of the narrative are a lot of stone walls and blind alleys; combined with the open secret of the murderer's identity, the effect on the audience is much more the don't-go-near-the-castle frustration of horror than the unfolding suspense of a procedural. The doctor tsk-tsks over the strange red marks on the throat of his fainting patient and the audience screams IT'S A VAMPIRE YOU DUMBASS, but the doctor doesn't know that he should be looking for supernatural explanations instead of medical ones and David doesn't know that he's asking the wrong questions. He doesn't know what kind of story he's in.

I'm not entirely sure myself. Five or ten years ago this scenario would have been unambiguously noir and it still could be, at the dissolving outer edge of the cycle that produced experiments like the sexual reversal of The Big Combo (1955) or the slapstick splatter of The Killing (1956). Screenwriter Ben Barzman had collaborated with Losey on the anti-war fantasy The Boy with the Green Hair (1948) before their respective blacklistings from Hollywood; working from Emlyn Williams' 1953 stage play Someone Waiting, he retained the basic constellation of characters but radically rewrote everything from the timeline to the mood. The glassy sense of nightmare agrees with film noir, as does some of the visual/verbal stylization; one of the reasons the tone can scale so successfully into melodrama without collapsing into camp is that it starts at least one high-strung degree out from realism,2 the cinematography and the often intrusive music as anxious and awkward as day-late-dollar-short David, who's still trying just to catch up on the facts of the case as he prepares to see his son for the first time in years. It has the moral ambiguity and the social critique. But so do many other genres that aren't noir and those are the ones that Time Without Pity, though I'm still working to pinpoint why, might belong more to. It's not as symbolic a universe, perhaps. In Roy William Neill's Black Angel (1946), it's a significant moment both personally and narratively when dry drunk Dan Duryea goes on his third-act bender; it signals the end of his ghost marriage with grass widow June Vincent, the resumption of the wastrel downward slide that will solve the mystery of his wife's death and her husband's guilt or innocence. Redgrave's David struggles to stay sober for the first half of Time Without Pity, but when he finally goes for the booze, the film is unemphatic about it. By this point he is being warily assisted in his quest by Honor Stanford (Ann Todd, playing about fifteen years younger than her age), the elegant, guarded mother of Alec's best friend from university; she briefly loses track of him after an upsetting interview and by the time she catches up to him in the nearest pub he's on his nth whisky double and already pretty blind. She tries to persuade him to stop drinking. He downs another and faceplants into the bar. A little while later he wakes up. And more or less sobers up. And he'll spend the rest of the film in sliding states of drunkenness, hangover, and strung-out sobriety, but he's been a functioning alcoholic for years, he can operate like this. It isn't the thing that will make or break his ability to clear his son's name. If there's redemption involved in this tale, that's not the key to it.

The social justice angle could be noir, too, though the decade that produced it had no shortage of message pictures. Much is made of the efficient machinery of the English justice system which has effectively railroaded Alec Graham without anyone involved in the process feeling very strongly about it one way or the other. Once I got over the shock of seeing Peter Cushing in a non-genre supporting role, I conceded that he provides a necessary perspective as Alec's lawyer, a polite, intelligent, colorless man who did the best he could for his client within the boundaries of the law but is now reluctant, his sympathy for both father and son notwithstanding, to push much further. He isn't heartless and he isn't a hypocrite. He just did his due diligence and he doesn't see what more there is for him to do. Neither does the Home Office, even after David pulls every string he can imagine to get an audience in hopes of obtaining a stay of execution; the support he gets from a reform-minded MP is superficial and strictly ideological, holding up Alec's case as a potential miscarriage of justice with no individual concern for the boy's guilt, innocence, or survival. Even the priest who will perform the last rites for the condemned turns his father away with some Teflon platitude about heavenly hands being kinder than the hands of earth. "All of you trying to make it look so humane and decent," David rages. "Well, you can't. I want my son to live. I'm not going to let you kill him!"

What was he to you? Someone to weep over when you were drunk? )

The ending is satisfying. I hadn't been sure it would be; the film is just enough of a noir and David's agency so marginal that it could have gone completely bleak and I wouldn't have been able to dispute it, just dislike. Instead the climactic confrontation comes down to the manipulation of narrative, a strategy any writer can approve of: the man who was always "about to write" his great novel has finally found a story worth telling and a means to make it stick. The final tableau is fantastic, deep-focus as a raked stage. The last line is the right one. I still don't think Time Without Pity is as complex a film as The Prowler or as flat-out weird as The Damned, but it was Losey's first British film under his own name and more than just a placeholder on the way to his work with Harold Pinter. If nothing else, it's got Michael Redgrave. He's sympathetic on the strength of little more than good intentions; he's less fragile than he looks, but that's not the same thing as effective. Especially in light of these last few bad weeks, I find it important that he never does turn into an action hero—at his bravest, he can still be rattled, still have to nerve himself up, still hates the telephone. This eleventh hour brought to you by my tenacious backers at Patreon.




1. Though I've seen it four or five times now with fathers and I'd really like to know where their female counterparts hang out. Pre-Code? Indie filmmaking? Foreign films? I'm taking suggestions.

2. I love the way clocks are used in this movie. They are the obvious symbol of devouring time, so the set design puts them so blatantly everywhere that they become surreal and start to get on the audience's nerves as much as they do the protagonist's. An important witness' mother (Renée Houston, a perfectly pitched grotesque) has filled her parlor with them. The aggressive, oppressive ticking unsettles David, already on edge with the nearness of the liquor she keeps offering him and liberally drinking herself; whenever an alarm goes off, she leaves it "just to hear it ring and know that you don't have to go anywhere—it's wonderful" while David tries and fails not to hear Alec's time running out with each new chime. He can't get away from mirrors, either. He's the last thing he wants to look at or think about—his past failures, his dwindling future, the fatalistic way that Alec, as sensitive as his father and already more bitter, claims to welcome his own hanging as an escape from "turn[ing] into something like you." He sees his own face reflected over his child's and would do anything to take that doom away.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
My poem "An Obedience Experiment" is now online at Rattle as this week's Poets Respond. There are notes included.

I am honored that the poem is being published in this fashion; I wish there had been no occasion to write it.

In 1961, Stanley Milgram found that 65% of his subjects complied all the way to the final supposed 450 volts. The percentages on a re-run in 2006 were nearly identical. Either we change the numbers or that 35% is going to burn out fast. I prefer Option A.
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