Time is not on your side

Real time movies like Nick of Time are the clever antithesis of real cinema

In The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three, a subway train is taken hostage by terrorists; they insist upon a ransom or they will start shooting hostages. Although the film takes place mostly in real time, it is not rigid in doing so. By the denouement, one of the terrorists has escaped; the film releases itself from real time here in order to allow the cops to capture the last terrorist. If the movie hadn't disregarded the gimmick, there would have been a sense of dramatic disappointment (the villain escapes). If it had maintained its continuity, the climax of the film would have been followed by five hours of dry police work. In other words, the very nature of the film's set-up (a police investigation) requires that real time be disregarded in exchange for recognition of the realities of the situation--the film creates its own realism at the justified expense of real time.

Naturally, the exception proves the rule: High Noon, the 1952 classic Western. In it, Sheriff Will Kane marries a Quaker woman at 10:30 a.m., and in deference to her pacifist beliefs, resigns his position. Just then, it is announced that Frank Miller, whom the sheriff sent to prison and who has pledged revenge, is due on the noon train. Kane tries to solicit deputies from the townspeople to defend himself against Miller, but they are cowardly and refuse to help. Ninety minutes later, Frank Miller arrives, resulting in one of the greatest realistic shoot-outs in film history. After defeating the villains, Kane and his wife leave town--all in real time.

If High Noon is a perfect film--and I would argue that it is--it achieves that status for two reasons. First, unlike Hitchcock in Rope, director Fred Zinnemann does not forsake montage. Every scene is tightly edited, and the climactic scene--when the clock strikes noon--may be the most thrilling and complex convergence of editing, music, cinematography, and performance Hollywood ever produced. Second, that the film takes place in real time is completely incidental to what the picture is about. High Noon was written at the height of blacklisting in Hollywood, and the townspeople's hesitance to stand up with Kane--to show support for someone to whom they owe so much--was a brilliant, scathing indictment of those who would name names to stay in Senator Joe McCarthy's favor.

High Noon is a film of ideas and actions, of style and substance. It doesn't draw attention to its use of real time, but uses the time constraint as an idiom for conveying the urgency Hollywood should have felt for saving itself from totalitarianism. High Noon could have been set over a day, a week, a year--even three hours. It was just that the filmmakers could say all they needed to in 90 minutes, so there was no reason to prolong the effect. It succeeds despite real time, not because of it.

High Noon also benefits from dozens of great performances, while Nick of Time has to make do with Walken skulking around like a little cartoon devil sitting on Depp's shoulder. Depp, for his part, is saddled with the one constant of real time movies: the character of the Everyman. (Movies that take place in so rigid a timeframe rarely have the opportunity to develop a character of greater depth.) Since the nature of Watson's predicament is both tremendously far-fetched and predictably emotional, we don't really learn anything about him. You're never put in the position of wondering whether you'd act the same way because of the film's detached, hyperoutrageous plot.

Credit Badham with at least trying to add a visual uniqueness to the movie. With its flat, washed-out composition, Nick of Time has the appearance of a two-dimensional comic strip, not a real movie. He does manage to get us into Depp's head on occasion, and though the effect never lasts, you have to acknowledge the effort. Maybe it's pointless to talk about the artistic merits of a film as resolutely dull as Nick of Time, but it would be a shame if the movie started a trend in real-time movies. Film does not have to be purely cinematic all the time, but is there anything more depressing than watching the same magic trick played over and over again once you already know the secret?

Nick of Time. Paramount Pictures. Johnny Depp. Christopher Walken. Written by Patrick Sheane Duncan. Directed by John Badham. Now showing.

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