What Does it Take To Break a Man’s Will?
DIRECTED BY KARL MALDEN/1957
STREET DATE APRIL 14, 2020
KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Major Harry Cargill (Richard Basehart) was the highest ranking American officer while being held in a North Korean prisoner of war camp. His fellow prisoners admired him and considered him unbreakable until the day he became a collaborator, spreading anti-American, pro-Communist propaganda not only in the camp but over radio broadcasts. Later, liberated from the camp, Cargill faces the possibility of court martial for treason. But first an Army investigator, Col. Edwards (Richard Widmark), must make a recommendation for or against court martial. And Edwards suspects there’s more to the story than he’s been told. What could possibly make a man suddenly betray his country? What pressure was applied to Cargill in the camp to cause him to break?
Time Limit was actor Karl Malden’s sole foray into feature directing. In his autobiography he wrote that he preferred “being a good actor to being a fairly good director.” Malden is not entirely wrong in that appraisal of his work. Time Limit was based on a Broadway play by Henry Denker, and it is a fairly good film, with the stolid feel of a stage adaptation. There is nothing inspired about the way the film looks: the cramped sets and grainy cinematography evoke 1950s teleplays. But Time Limit succeeds in other ways: with its strong cast, gripping dialogue, and moral gravity. It’s a deeply serious film not just about war but about patriotism, idealism, and the ways in which war inevitably strips soldiers of parts of their humanity.
Major Cargill’s case seems open and shut. Recordings of the propaganda radio broadcasts exist, over a dozen fellow soldiers testify to his “going over” to the enemy, and Cargill himself offers no defense. He freely confesses to everything, and belligerently refuses to cooperate with Col. Edwards, the one person who seems concerned that Cargill gets a fair hearing. Edwards’ commanding officer, Lt. General Connors (Carl Benton Reid) lost his son in the same prison camp and despises Cargill. He pressures Edwards to wrap up his investigation quickly and becomes increasingly irate when Edwards seems to be digging deeper than necessary into what happened in the prison camp.
Only one of the soldiers who testifies against Cargill is featured in Time Limit, Lt. Miller, played by an unrecognizably young Rip Torn. He leads with a smiling “awe shucks” demeanor, but when pressed on details by Col. Edwards, Miller becomes increasingly wary and shifty in his answers.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot of Time Limit because it is, ultimately, a mystery. There is more than one twist before the final credits. But those twists, as solid as they are, are not the best thing about Time Limit. What makes the movie rise about many military dramas, then and now, is it’s willingness to ask hard questions about good and evil, about whether the Army’s code is of greater value than the individual human life, and about the place of forgiveness and mercy in an honor-bound military culture. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes Cargill argues, “A man can be a hero all his life, but if in the last month of it, or the last week, or even the last minute, the pressure becomes too great and he breaks, then he’s branded for life. You can’t ask a man to be a hero forever. There ought to be a time limit.”
Basehart, solidly middle aged and broad shouldered, portrays Cargill as a man grimly resigned to his fate for much of the film. There’s something weighty about him, as if the suffering he’s endured and the guilt he feels are strapped to him like anchors. Widmark, so good at playing sharp and wiley, and consequently a frequent film villain, brings those very qualities to his role as an honest investigator. Edwards is cunning, stubborn, and determined to find the truth even if doing so rips open very deep wounds. Martin Balsam, perhaps best known as Detective Arbogast in Psycho, is Edward’s amoral assistant, Sgt. Baker. Dolores Michaels does the best she can as a very overqualified stenographer, Cpl. Evans, who attracts the attention of every man in the movie. Two other familiar faces appear: June Lockhart in a small role as Cargill’s wife, and Khigh Dhiegh as Col. Kim, the head of the prisoner of war camp. Dhiegh played a similar role, the prison camp brainwashing expert Yen Lo, in The Manchurian Candidate. He also played the villainous Chinese agent Wo Fat on the television series Hawaii Five-O. Need proof that the movie industry has always run on illusion? Dhiegh’s name at birth was Kenneth Dickerson, and he was not of East Asian ancestry. He was Anglo-Egyptian-Sudanese.
Kino’s new 2K restoration of Time Limit is bare bones when it comes to bonus features, offering only a handful of trailers from B movies of the 50s and 60s (with the exception of the decidedly not “B” Judgment at Nuremberg).