By Mike Dub
By the time Joseph Losey released Time Without Pity in 1957, the “named” communist had been living in exile from HUAC for five years, and had made four films that were released under pseudonyms. His previous directing credit, The Big Night, details the wounds suffered by a confused teenager (played by John Drew Barrymore, son of legend John Barrymore) over the public humiliation of his meek father. After four pseudonymous features, Losey picks up right where his last official credit left off, though from the opposite perspective.
While the story of The Big Night is told through the eyes of its young protagonist, Time Without Pity centers on the story of a father, David Graham (Michael Redgrave), a recovering alcoholic whose son Alec (Alec McCown) awaits a death sentence. Alec has been convicted of murdering his girlfriend, a crime he didn’t commit – we see the murder occur in beautifully harrowing shadows in an opening pre-title prologue that reveals the killer. David, who has spent the last stretch of time secluded in a sanitarium to dry out (“They wouldn’t allow me to receive any mail”), arrives from Canada with 24 hours to save his son’s life.
The plot may sound somewhat preposterous, but Time Without Pity is a tight, frenzied “B” movie that doesn’t mind sacrificing some narrative logic for thematic and dramatic impact. Losey’s gripping visuals and the incessantly explosive performances are enough to distract his audience from the mediocre script to create a tense, entertaining, and quietly complex film about family, responsibility, and redemption.
Because the real killer, corporate magnate and surrogate father Robert Stanford (Leo McKern, captivating as he relishes every maniacal emotional swing he is given), is revealed in the opening sequence, Losey allows the story to develop into something closer to melodrama than mystery. For Losey, the world is a dark and crushing place, particularly so for young people. Alec’s victimhood has been set in motion long before the film begins, first by the abandonment of his father, and then by the necessity to find a replacement. Betrayed by both, he awaits his death with a resigned, emotionally deadened acceptance of the inevitable. As a prison guard explains to David, “Your son has adjusted himself…. And we all feel here that it’s a great blessing.”
Though the brilliant black-and-white cinematography by Freddie Francis intensifies every scene with a stunning blend of shadows and light, punctuated by severe close-ups and a clever use of reflections, the script often feels easy and transparent. David rarely discovers any information in his investigation, but rather the script allows suspects and witnesses to blithely reveal key pieces of information (which they were presumably clever enough to keep from the police). However, as David, a writer by occupation, goes through the predictable routine of solving a crime that confounded professional detectives, he also flows through waves of guilt and self-pity – the regrets of a misspent lifetime, his culpability in his son’s predicament, and his impotent fight against the justice system.
Much like The Big Night, Time Without Pity buys into the angst-ridden, ‘50s-era caricature of postwar parents as infantilized or impotent role models. They also each conclude with a surprising, sympathetic reversal that illustrates Losey’s empathy for his characters. Just as sons suffer the inadequacies of their fathers, the fathers also suffer – perhaps justifiably – out of love for their children. The dynamic reveals Losey’s conception of the world as not just dark and dangerous for the young, but also cruel and unmerciful to all, one in which forgiveness and redemption are only attainable through each other.