DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Time Limit

Friday 3 July 2009

Time Limit

Time Limit (1957) dir. Karl Malden
Starring: Richard Widmark, Richard Basehart, Dolores Michaels, Rip Torn


Rest in Peace Karl Malden. Over his lengthy career, in addition to his own fine performances, he helped other great actors deliver some of the best performances. Malden actually directed one film as well - a little known chamber drama entitled "Time Limit" - a 1957 military film about a mysterious case of treason within a Korean War POW camp. Coincidentally it happened to get its first DVD release by MGM last month.

It's the middle of the Korean War and Richard Widmark plays Col. William Edwards, a Judge Advocate (military lawyer) assigned to the case of Major Harry Cargill, a respected officer who confesses to treason. While in a POW camp, Cargill freely communicated anti-American propaganda to the Korean troops, a heinous act that threatens to have him court-martialled. Any questions Edwards asks of Cargill are met with the same unemotional statements repeated over and over again, same as his fellow POW inmates. Something just doesn't feel right and Edwards' investigation gradually uncovers a stunning revelation about the troops.

The investigation plays out with a predictable series of dramatic confessions to arrive at the shocking truth from the soldiers. While it's difficult to shock audiences these days, in 1957, Malden managed to poke some rather large holes in the foundation of the American military establishment to stir up some controversy. The title refers to the notion of military heroism and the unfair burden this label can be on our soldiers — themes applicable to any war, or any soldier, especially nowadays when our soldiers are supported with an often over-the-top shower of exaltation. But our soldiers, like the characters in Malden's film, are just regular people, just as vulnerable to the fears of death and dishonour.

These are some grand ideas that unfortunately are stifled by some stodgy storytelling. Stepping behind the camera with this material would seem a natural for Malden, as it was originally a play adapted for the screen by the writer — an actor's movie. Unfortunately it makes for a stagy filmed version, a visually uninspired effort, with its minimal interior locations largely undecorated on a small, claustrophobic set, though the occasional flashbacks to the POW camp do bring a dark sense of gritty realism to the picture.

We only have to look a yeas later to Stanley Kubrick's anti-war classic "Paths of Glory", which relays the same complex themes of cowardice and heroism, but with more cinematic chutzpah. Perhaps directing just wasn't for Malden. His body of work in front of the screen speaks for itself, and even though it's a flawed film "Time Limit" has the same intense integrity which inhabited many of Malden's great roles.

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