Friday Film Noir
The longevity of television’s Dexter speaks to audience interest in and creative potential of the premise in which an authoritative figure, a Bloodstain Pattern Analyst in the case of the Showtime drama, commits the very crimes he or she is specialized in thwarting. The morally ambiguous nature of said character, the possible venues to create tension, the commentary on institutions dedicated to crime investigation, and more are ripe for commentary. Films have also concerned themselves with the subject, such as the Italian psychological drama Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and the film under review this week, 1956’s Time Table, directed by and starring Mark Stevens.
On a train heading toward Phoenix, Arizona, in the wee hours of the morning, Dr. Paul Brucker (Wesley Addy) is called into duty when someone is announced gravely ill in one of the nearby cabins. Much to the surprise of the railroad employees who assist Dr. Brucker in retrieving his medical supplies in a special luggage compartment, Paul is, in fact, a participant in an elaborate heist to retrieve $500,000 stashed in a safe. He and his blonde wig-wearing female accomplice, Linda (Felicia Farr), escape via ambulance into the night with a fake patient and the loot. Shortly thereafter, insurance company man Charlie Norman (Stevens), anticipating a wonderful Mexican holiday with his wife Ruth (Marianne Stewart), is asked to postpone the vacation to help with the investigation alongside railroad company inspector Joe Armstrong (King Calder). Little do either Joe or Ruth know that Charlie is the one who planned the entire operation…
Time Table is the sort of film that is now long forgotten in the annals of film history yet gets by with a plethora of little pleasant surprises, literally and figuratively. In the literal sense, Stevens and screenwriter Eben Kandel intelligently refrain from revealing too much, too early in the picture, sprinkling it with plenty of twists and turns as the story evolves. For instance, as the film opens, there is no indication that Brucker is executing a heist. The first few minutes seem like a perfectly normal situation wherein the doctor is requested by the ticket master to come to the aid of an ailing passenger. Only once he retrieves his kit, from which he extracts a pistol, things get down and dirty. The involvement and motivations of other characters are dealt with in a similar fashion. Charlie’s role as the mastermind is not even hinted at until about 30 minutes into the picture. Before, we saw him discuss his much-needed vacation with his wife (who mentions that he has shown signs of angst as of late) and begin the investigation with Joe Armstrong. A few more unexpected events occur along the way, ensuring that the viewer will be guessing for the better part of the picture as to what might happen next and to whom.
Another pleasant surprise is how well-written the story is. While claiming the picture to be airtight might be lofty, the screenplay weaves together a nice array of ideas that inevitably feed into the plot, helping to expand the breadth of the story and the protagonist’s particularities. In an early scene when Charlie is tasked with investigating the stolen money, his wife is saddened that his work has demanded so much time and energy, resulting in his snippy mannerisms. In any other film, this information would be understood as a small bit of character development to fill in the blanks of the Norman home life. In truth, Charlie’s increasing stress has to do with his judiciously planned timetable for the train robbery, from lead-up, execution to escape and aftermath. This attention to detail makes what might have been a serviceable potboiler an excellent character study.
A question some viewers always ask themselves whenever characters perform vile acts of crime or infidelity (Charlie being guilty of both) is “Why?” The film does provide an answer in one of its most poignant, heartbreaking scenes, whereupon Ruth, at long last privy to her husband’s secrets, is told by a morose Charlie that her love did suffice once, some time ago, but no longer. It is rare for a film of this ilk to take on the complexity of why a relationship would break down, not to mention that said breakdown is completely one-sided, what with Ruth believing until the final third that Charlie still loves her deeply. It is only one scene, and not a particularly long one, but at least Time Table earns some kudos for acknowledging the fallibility of love, how it may slip away just as easily as it once came. For all the plot contrivances that force Charlie into a tight spot, this scene offers a genuine sense of loss.
Serving double duty on the picture, Stevens ends up being quite capable as both star and director. This was his second chance at directing a picture, the first being Cry Vengeance from 2 years earlier, and his understanding of pacing and drama is praiseworthy even though the direction is nothing spectacular. His contribution, rather than aim for a distinctive, idiosyncratic style, is much more reserved and in service of the story despite there being a couple of awkward decisions, such as having the reveal of a certain character’s demise be told rather than shown. As a performer, Stevens plays his part on two separate levels: aloof when seemingly in control whenever studying testimonies and circumstantial evidence with Joe and seriously on edge when conversing behind the scenes with his criminal cohorts. As his character keeps harping that everything hinges on his carefully detailed timetable, any deviations cause severe consternation. Stevens is not exactly the most charismatic of actors, but he instills a nice duality in Charlie Norman. The supporting cast is probably where the film earns more points in the acting department, from the heartfelt Marianne Stewart, the charming, wise King Calder, and the slimy Addy. In fact, it can be argued that Addy is offed far too early, the picture missing his presence during the home stretch.
Time Table ends up being a very taut, cleverly constructed thriller where most of the fun is not seeing how law enforcement will ensnare the villains but in exploring how long the villains can remain out the reach of the long arm of the law. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a perfect crime; eventually, someone will find evidence pointing to the culprit. Fanciful dreams of time spent in sunny Mexico with hundreds of thousands of dollars to support themselves is not in the cards for Charlie nor his associates. Crime does not pay, but it is fun to live vicariously through such characters and see how long the chase can last.
– Edgar Chaput