“Yeah, I know what Joe says. And patience is fine for a guy like Joe, it goes with his two pants suit, his washable necktie, and his ’49 car! For me patience is poison!”
Despite a five-decade career in film and television, Mark Stevens was most visible in the years immediately after the war. He made his first big splash with Lucille Ball and Bill Bendix in 1946’s The Dark Corner, followed by a pair of notable 1948 films: the FBI-noir The Street with No Name and the Academy heavyweight The Snake Pit. Stevens is of less interest for those projects (to me, at least) than he is for his 1950s work, after he struck out on his own. He was the force behind his own film production and music publishing companies (he could sing), as well as the star and occasional director of Big Town, a popular weekly television series in which he played a crime-busting newsman. Although Stevens failed to carve out a lasting place for himself as filmmaker, his earliest efforts, Cry Vengeance (1954) and Time Table (1956), both surprisingly good noirs, beg for increased attention in contemporary film circles, and make one wish the fledgling director had framed more crime movies.
Unfortunately for anyone who hasn’t seen Time Table, it’s impossible to discuss without spoiling its big twist — so let’s get it out of the way right now (and don’t worry, the reveal occurs in the first half of the film): Stevens plays an insurance investigator who — here it comes — turns out to be the brains behind the very robbery he’s asked to solve. Although it’s a rather old saw and may bring to mind Double Indemnity, Time Table more closely resembles titles like Roadblock, Private Hell 36, and The Man Who Cheated Himself. It draws its conventions from a myriad of noir films rather than those of any one in particular. This much is certain: in spite of being a cinematic mutt, Time Table is an intriguing movie that deserves to be seen. However, if your taste prohibits enjoyment of a “derivative” film, then it probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you can still connect with a noir picture that utilizes familiar genre tropes and still manages to captivate, keep reading. Or better yet, go track this down. It will surprise you.
The movie opens with a ten-minute-long heist sequence, cleverly staged on a train speeding west through the Arizona night. A polished crook posing as a doctor manages to crack the train’s safe and snatch all the money inside. The job is perfectly planned and calmly executed, using high-tech explosives, a precisely detailed timetable, and a cagey scheme involving a “sick” passenger and his “wife” — both in on the caper. The trio of bandits exit the train in a scrubby desert town, and abscond in an ambulance with half a million dollars. The railroad’s insurers will have to make good on the policy unless the money is recovered, so they assign the case to Charlie Norman (Stevens), their best man, forcing him and his wife Ruth (Marianne Stewart) to delay their long-planned Mexican vacation. Charlie is partnered with railroad detective and best friend (yeah, yeah) Joe Armstrong (King Calder).
The second act contains a healthy dose of cop procedure. Charlie and Joe chase leads, pal around with the yokel cops, and generally marvel at the efficiency and brains of their quarry — all while Charlie becomes more preoccupied and nervous. We're convinced his frustration owes to the lost vacation, until the twist occurs and we discover otherwise: Charlie masterminded the entire robbery in the first place, and he’s torn up because what he believed to be a perfect crime is unravelling all around him. He dreamt up the caper, recruited the players, and worked out the all-important timetable. Why? For some unknown reason Charlie is fed up — with his job, with his home, and with his marriage. He intended to pull off the heist, then use his Mexican holiday as a means to skip out on his old life and rendezvous with his accomplices south of the border. There he intends to cut up the money and start fresh in Argentina with Linda (Felicia Farr), with whom he has fallen in love. Yet fate, as it so often does in film noir, has a different agenda: one of Charlie’s crew is accidentally shot and killed, throwing off the timetable and forcing his partners to hole up. In the meantime, Joe’s dogged police work gains more and more momentum, while Charlie grows ever more desperate. He is finally forced to commit a murder in order to protect himself, scaring his remaining co-conspirators into making a run for it. Just as Joe finally gets wise to the whole scheme, Charlie heads for Tijuana in a last-ditch effort to meet up with Linda. With the Federales riding shotgun, Joe corners the lovers in TJ and guns are drawn…
Whether explored deeply or viewed as pure escapism, Time Table scores. Aben Kandel’s (City for Conquest) accomplished script surpasses typical B movie fare, with an airtight plot and plenty of tough, pithy dialog. Kandel also has a gift for subtle double-entendres that reinforce the story’s central theme and reward attentive viewers. For example, early on when Ruth replaces the blanket on a dozing Charlie, he mumbles, “What’re you trying to do, smother me?” All of Kandel’s characters, in one way or another and regardless of their gender, are struggling to overcome the emptiness of a world in which they’ve discovered, all too late, that the fairy tale assurances of their younger years are simply not meant to be. Charlie finds no comfort in his bleak, middle class existence. Fulfilling the role of the perfect wife brings Ruth little but disappointment. Linda trades her alcoholic, disgraced husband for the promise of a better life with Charlie, but instead leaps from the frying pan into an altogether deadlier fire. Even Joe runs himself into the ground living up to the image of a dead cop father who taught him there’s no such thing as a perfect crime. In Time Table, perfection is as ethereal as the cloud of cigarette smoke that perpetually hangs over Charlie and Joe.
Stevens’ direction might be described as workmanlike, but he understands where to linger, when to move quickly, and how to get a lot out of his actors — Time Table has a great cast. Wesley Addy (Kiss Me Deadly, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) is fantastic as the drunken ex-M.D. who holds it together just long enough to rob the train, while King Calder, who worked previously with Stevens during his run as television’s private detective Martin Kane, excels as the relentlessly driven railroad cop. Calder’s face and body language are so hang-dog it’s hard to imagine him in roles outside of the crime genre. However two of the most memorable performances come from actors in small parts. Jack Klugman, appearing in his first film role after having met Stevens on an episode of Big Town, plays a chain-smoking wheelman who squirms under the lights like nobody’s business. Klugman has just one scene, but he steals it cleanly away from Stevens and Calder. The second standout is Alan Reed, whose name and face may not be incredibly familiar, though his unforgettable and iconic voice certainly is — even thirty-five years after his death. Reed’s stocky build, unique look, and instant pathos made him a natural for this stuff — it’s surprising he didn’t make more crime pictures. Reed vividly brings to life the helicopter pilot most responsible for Charlie’s plans going down the tube. He burns the candle from both ends and pays a steep price for turning stool pigeon — it’s one of the film’s best moments.
At a quick 79 minutes, Time Table is a second feature — it plows ahead, sacrificing much at the altar of brevity. Yet while similar films are repudiated as rote exercises in “what happened next?” moviemaking, they frequently provide an instructive lens through which we can examine the cultural values of their era. Time Table in such a film. At its core is the question of Charlie’s motivation to self-destruct, and he offers no clues beyond a vaguely expressed desire for a change. At a critical point in the final reel, Ruth confronts him:
“Charlie, why’d you do it? Why?”
“Why? What does it matter?”
And later in the same scene:
“We had so much Charlie. Why, why?”
“The house becomes a prison, the job a trap.”
“What did you want?”
“A new kind of life.”
Yet the film doesn't explain why Charlie so desperately wants this new life. Personally and professionally he has everything a man could reasonably ask for — his situation is even admirable. Ruth is a kind and attractive woman for whom he has genuine affection, and his tough-guy job as an insurance cop makes him a bona fide man’s man. The most telling aspect of Time Table is how it takes for granted that viewers will embrace Charlie’s compulsion to escape his circumstances without being given a reason.
Look closely at the absurdity of Charlie’s actions: he trades his job and his honor for a satchel of easy money; a fine suburban home for assuredly more squalid digs in Argentina; and a caring spouse another woman, albeit younger and a little prettier, who nevertheless seems to be cut from the same beige piece of cloth as his wife. It’s also worth pointing out that Linda is a Mexican — another way in which the film drives home the point that Charlie’s all-American situation somehow isn’t adequate. And he knows his trades are for keeps — permanently sanctified through blood and betrayal. After all, Charlie’s a law enforcement man who, like Walter Neff, understands the risks but believes his knowledge of the game provides an edge. At the same time, he is aware of the looming possibility of the little green room at Quentin, where one’s final black moments are strained listening for the plop-plop-fizz-fizz of everlasting relief.
Unlike in other noir pictures, the protagonist’s downfall can’t be attributed to a femme fatale. Time Table doesn’t have one. Sure, there’s a girl, but Charlie’s inamorata is hardly an upgrade on his wife. Here’s a guy who is winning the rat race and still wants out — he hates everything about his situation. The answer to his motivation lies in the movie’s unrelenting cynicism. Time Table consciously subverts the post-war American dream of happiness through national prosperity and material achievement. It thumbs its nose at the white bread promises of the Eisenhower era: the steady jobs, home-sweet-homes, and June Allyson wives that saturated mainstream media offerings. It gives us a protagonist who has achieved these material things and more, yet remains unfulfilled. In many ways, Charlie’s case is even more compelling than that of the pill-popping Ed Avery in another 1956 film, Nicholas Ray’s brilliant Bigger Than Life — if only because Time Table is neither a character study nor a message picture. For the men of film noir, the ones who fought the war and returned to a changing country, the idea of a dutiful and submissive wife, a white collar, and a white picket fence just couldn’t cut it — and heaven knows our noir heroes tried to fit back in. They squirm in their suits, tugging at those tight collars, chewing their nails, always on the make for that thing that might break the monotony and remind them of what it feels like to be alive. Pour another drink, Don Draper.
What makes Time Table so enthralling (as well as numerous other film noirs), is that while modern audiences might find Charlie Norman’s gambit unfathomable or absurd, some of the 1956 crowd undoubtedly recognized themselves in him — feeling every bit as suffocated while having to acquiesce to the vanilla model of happiness offered up on countless roadside billboards, magazine advertisements, and sponsor-centric TV programs. Consequently, Charlie becomes a poster child for those who felt trapped in that uncanny era of prosperous conformity — and an authentic film noir anti-hero. In recognizing and understanding the daring of filmmakers who so openly questioned the fleeting promises of the American Dream, we further appreciate the enduring allure of film noir.