Veteran character actor Karl Malden only directed one feature, Time Limit. Like fellow one-and-done director/actor Charles Laughton, Malden showed a grasp of the medium that makes you wish he’d built up a filmography. Here, he takes a story that may only need two set pieces and mixes in matte shots, and a few on-location New York sequences to break up the monotony.
Time Limit concerns Col William Edwards (Richard Widmark) who must recommend whether to court marshall Maj. Harry Cargill. Cargill most certainly committed treason during the Korean War during his two years of captivity behind enemy lines. He signed confessions for the enemy and appeared on radio broadcast accusing the Americans of using chemical warfare. Despite the damning, lockstep account of fourteen fellow POWs and Cargill’s refusal to defend himself, Edwards is convinced of Cargill’s character. He insists something turned the good major, something significant. Fortunately his stenographer, the daughter of a lawyer, manages to find clues in the seemingly benign statements of the other POWs.
Time Limit is one of many ponderous films between the late forties and late seventies to try to probe the soul of the American system, its rules, and morals with lengthy monologues seemingly better fit for small run live theater. The best of the lot remains 12 Angry Men, but that shouldn’t discredit the whole genre. While the language the characters speak can hardly pass for normal dialog, the issues addressed are with to this day. In particular, once all’s revealed, the arguments that moralize Cargill’s actions sound similar to those floated around Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.