In order to discuss this 1956 noir by Mark Stevens, who also stars in it, I’m going to have to reveal the film’s major plot twist below; it’s unavoidable, so if that’s a problem I suggest you look away now, or take a hike. Actually don’t take a hike, I’m only kidding; use this random review generator and read something else instead.
Time Table opens with a well-executed heist that takes place on board a speeding train. An off-duty doctor named Brucker (Wesley Addy) is asked to help a fellow passenger who has taken ill. The doctor explains that he’s happy to help, but orders the train’s guard to make an unscheduled stop so that the patient can be transferred to the nearest hospital, and also asks that he be granted access to the locked baggage car so that he can retrieve his instruments. However Brucker isn’t a real doctor, and when he enters the baggage car he’s able to use a stashed gun and overpowers three fairly gormless men guarding a safe. He blows the safe door and, when the train stops, leaves the vehicle with $500,000. The patient and his wife Linda (Felicia Farr, who would go on to marry Jack Lemmon) are accomplices, and the three make their escape in a waiting ambulance.
Stevens plays Charlie Norman, the insurance agency’s best investigator, who must cut short his holiday with wife Ruth (Marianne Stewart) when he is assigned the case by his superior. Helping Charlie with his enquiries is his long-time friend and colleague Joe Armstrong (King Calder), who fulfills a similar investigator role for the railroad. Gradually the pair realise that whoever planned the heist was attempting to carry off the perfect crime, although Joe is wearily dismissive and argues that the perfect crime doesn’t exist, before he sets about finding a mistake or an oversight made by the gang. But here’s the twist: the criminal mastermind behind the heist is actually Charlie, and he grows increasingly more frantic as his perfectly-planned ‘time table’ begins to unravel partly due to errors by his accomplices and partly in the face of Joe’s doggedness. Charlie’s plan is to abscond to Argentina via Mexico with Linda (who is actually Brucker’s wife, but Charlie’s lover) and as the net closes he is forced to tie up loose ends and make a run for the border sooner than he had hoped.
The movie really hangs on Stevens’ performance, and thankfully the actor is up to the job despite also having duties behind the camera. Charlie’s duplicity is credible enough for the viewer to accept thanks to some well-handled early scenes in which he suddenly and unreasonably becomes rude and aggressive towards his wife, planting the seeds of doubt in our minds as regards his true nature. At the time Ruth puts it down to stress, which is understandable, but we soon find out that it’s not necessarily pressures of work that cause Charlie to lose his rag so easily. Well, it is, but not the kind of work that we were initially thinking of.
What has caused Charlie to plan a heist of this magnitude? He doesn’t appear to be short of money, but there are a number of other possibilities subtly incorporated into the screenplay by Aben Kandel (from an original story by Robert Angus). It may be for love: it is revealed that Charlie met Linda when investigating her husband Brucker in San Francisco, and presumably the pair started their affair shortly thereafter. He also seems to be disillusioned, generally: has he had enough of his job and his marriage to the well-meaning Ruth? Does he simply want some excitement in his life? Was he fed up of chasing down inept criminals with a nagging feeling that he could do better? All of this is hinted at, and in typical noir style it results in a world-weary protagonist who becomes ever more interesting as his moral compass goes awry.
The excellent Noir Of The Week website explains this well: ‘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.’
The story is driven by Joe’s investigation, which gradually takes him closer and closer to the truth behind the crime. Calder’s performance as the other slightly-cynical investigator is decent enough, especially when we see him mulling over his chalkboard full of clues while seemingly oblivious to Charlie’s anxious squirming nearby. Both men work through the clock while trying to figure out who is responsible for the crime – even though Charlie is careful not to try too hard – and Joe seems utterly married to the job, catching a few hours of sleep here and there on police station benches but otherwise totally focused on tracking down the perpetrators. The two leads carry the film successfully, although their performances are more ‘dependable’ than ‘standout’; both are upstaged in one scene by Jack Klugman, for example, who has an early film role here as a jumpy ambulance driver brought in for questioning.
Time Table has a complex story but it’s as tightly plotted as they come. It’s quite an unusual film for its time given that the big twist is revealed at an early point, but this works well enough and part of the fun comes from seeing the unflappable Charlie flap more and more, leading eventually to cold-blooded murder and a (poorly-lit) chase around the streets of Tijuana. The tale of a caper gone wrong (replete with in-fighting among the criminals) may be a little too familiar, but it isn’t the main focus of the film, and Stevens’ concentration on the cat-and-mouse part of the tale results in some decent crime drama. My main problem with the movie is that it just lacks an ‘x’ factor; there’s nothing really special about the cinematography or much of the acting, for example, that enables Time Table to stand out from the pack, although it’s short enough to warrant a viewing.
Directed by: Mark Stevens
Written by: Robert Angus, Aben Kandel
Starring: Mark Stevens, King Calder, Felicia Farr, Marianne Stewart, Wesley Addy, Alan Reed
Running Time: 80 minutes