Time is not on your side

Nick of Time begins with the type of set-up that should be the makings of high drama: The young daughter of drab businessman Gene Watson (Johnny Depp) is kidnaped, and will be killed unless he assassinates the governor (Marsha Mason). The difference from any other movie is that this one plays out in real time--the length it takes to watch the movie is the same it takes for the events to unfold in it. As used here, though, the device is little more than a cheap gimmick, and a burdensome one, at that.

Real time is a rarely used device in film, and Nick of Time falls victim to virtually every pothole the format posits, not the smallest of which is: How does the film keep 90 continuous minutes of a man's life interesting, even when he is subject to the most dire situations? The answer is: It doesn't. The film is set almost entirely within the confines of the Los Angeles Bonaventure Hotel, and before the film is half over, it's apparent that the activities available at the hotel are as dull as shampoo instructions: Get a shoe shine, have a drink at the bar, ride the elevator, repeat. If director John Badham and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan weren't so wedded to the real time concept, they might have found something interesting for our hero to do. (As it is, about the only real excitement takes place during a dream sequence).

The essential dilemma with most real time films is that, despite any sense of tension that might be created, the gimmick is fundamentally anti-cinematic, and only undermines artistic integrity. Although it can add a sense of urgency to a situation, at its heart, real time is a lazy screenwriter's device. Under the construct, one of the three essential elements of cinema--time, space, and action--is removed. Time is no longer a creative element used by the director to serve the film; rather, it becomes the raison d'etre. The creative process is set on its head: the director no longer creates the reality, but succumbs to it. A ticking clock becomes an artificial surrogate for common sense, and the flow of plot is relegated to maintaining the integrity of the gimmick.

Nowhere are these crimes more in evidence than in Nick of Time. While Gene's daughter is held at gunpoint in a van (by Roma Maffia), a seedy politico named Smitty (Christopher Walker) shadows Gene, making sure he carries through with the murder. The problems in the situation are clear without even seeing the movie: If Smitty is so close to the action, why doesn't he kill the governor himself? In fact, the conspiracy against the governor is so pervasive (Depp's character is about the only one not in on it), the film seems contrived beyond all reason. The script's obsession with real time, leading to endlessly repetitive busywork just to fill time, merely emphasizes these contrivances. You don't watch Nick of Time, you clock it.

Manipulating time is both common and necessary to all filmmaking. In The Black Stallion, for instance, the title character is the fastest-running horse ever. The film culminates in an exciting mile-and-a-quarter race, as the camera cuts frantically to the jockey, to the horses' legs galloping at breakneck speeds, to the spectators staring in bated anticipation. It is full of drama and tension and energy--and it's four-and-a-half minutes long, two minutes longer than the slowest racehorse in history. Yet the audience accepts that this isn't really the fastest race they've ever seen; they willingly suspend their disbelief. The length, a necessary result of the montage, enhances the feeling of immediacy even as it undercuts time in the real world.

The effect can also be used in reverse. In Alien, Lieutenant Ripley sets the spaceship on a 10-minute self-destruct protocol, but the ship explodes only eight minutes later; director Ridley Scott chooses to shorten the time frame to create the same tension that The Black Stallion achieves by lengthening it. That is the essential character of film: the ability to forge a new world by creative decision-making without regard to real time.

Perhaps the worst thing about real time movies is not that they take place in real time, but that they call attention to that from the outset. Nick of Time continually cuts to a digital clock to remind us just how much--or how little--time has actually passed. All this accomplishes is to make the film seem interminably long. You're meant to marvel that the director was able to do what he set out to do. Instead, you'll wonder why Nick of Time isn't more entertaining on its own merits.

No one seems immune to this particular gimmickry. Alfred Hitchcock made one of his worst pictures when he gave in to the temptation in Rope. Directed by anyone else, Rope would probably have been insufferable, rather than only occasionally interesting. The movie begins with a brutal murder, with the body dumped in a chest moments before guests arrive for dinner. The idea posed by the movie was whether the killers could get away with such a bold and daringly anti-social act merely because they believe themselves to be supermen. Ironically, this is the same issue raised by the film itself--can a visualist like Hitchcock make a film of such anti-cinematic qualities work, merely because he is Hitchcock? (Unfortunately, he couldn't.)

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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