THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: STRAIGHT TIME (D. ULU GROSBARD – 1978)

By Patrick Crain

In the cinematic world of Michael Mann, there are two figures who loom the largest. The first and most obvious one is Jean-Pierre Melville, French auteur whose cool visual style, obsession with the relationships between cops and criminals, and strict attention to detail and precision all informed the majority of Mann’s work. The second giant figure in Mann’s universe is Edward Bunker, master criminal who was also a gifted writer and turned his own real-life exploits into fodder for crime-obsessed filmmakers such as Mann and, later, Quentin Tarantino. While one-time cop Dennis Farinia and one-time thief John Santucci both lent their expertise to Mann’s world and filled it with the kind of details only professionals can articulate, it’s hard to imagine a character more important to our contemporary and cultural understanding of the professional criminal via broad, poetic, and genius stokes than Edward Bunker, both folk hero and ground zero for the Michael Mann archetype. So great was Bunker’s presence in the world of Michael Mann that, in Heat, Jon Voight’s criminal fixer, Nate, was modeled in both look and voice after Bunker.

And so it is that Straight Time, Ulu Grosbard’s film from 1978 based off of Bunker’s semi-autobiographical novel, No Beast So Fierce, is derived from a screenplay by Alvin Sargent, Jeffery Boam, and Bunker, with uncredited passes by the incomparable Nancy Dowd and, in his first feature film gig away from the confines of television, Michael Mann. Starring Dustin Hoffman as Bunker substitute Max Dembo, the film displays in very stark terms the incredibly limited and stifling choices afforded to an ex-con while also revealing, in the case the viewer wasn’t aware before watching it, why recidivism is a thing that occurs with an unfortunate frequency.

Straight Time is mostly what one would consider now a “hangout movie.” Nothing really much happens in terms of plot outside the trajectory of Max’s transformation from ex-con to fugitive with unsparing, heartbreaking detail (and rewarding invested audiences by making them amateur penologists). We meet the ex-cons in Dembo’s universe in their flophouses, modest starter homes, and even their middle-class suburban digs. But punching time-clocks, the routine of raising a family on the straight and narrow, and hosting backyard barbecues hold no life for these people. They are loners at heart and not much different from Pike and his men in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch; rudderless souls to whom civilization is just another prison.

Despite it going through a few more cycles before hitting the screen, much of Michael Mann’s work is still imbedded the screenplay. There materializes a familiar, doomed romanticism between Dembo and Jenny (a dazzling Theresa Russell) which will also show up in numerous Mann works. If the restaurant scene between Hoffman and Russell feels familiar, it’s because it’s a dry run for the James Caan/Tuesday Weld diner scene in Thief. Additionally, Max’s usage of “What’s to it?” sounds like he could have been James Caan’s cellmate as it’s a favored piece of phraseology of the latter. The timed bank heist, the criminal detail, and the Los Angeles locations all lend themselves easily to what would later become Mann’s sandbox.

However, this material isn’t uniquely Michael Mann’s and Grosbard does a brilliant job infusing it with his own visual style. Defused night lighting, hot dog stands populated with the flotsam and jetsam of the evening, and the gross interiors of sketchy dive bars slam up against the scenes set in the blazingly bright Los Angeles daytime where Max hustles in his attempt to go legit, which loads Straight Time with a cinematic tension that straddles film noir and slice of life.

Aside from containing Dustin Hoffman’s career-best turn and a (shoulda been) star-making performance from Russell, Straight Time also benefits from a deep bench of supporting players doing some of their best work. M. Emmet Walsh is absolutely repellant as Max’s sleazy parole officer, Gary Busey and Harry Dean Stanton are 100% authentic as ex-cons desperate for some kind of action, and Kathy Bates gives a beautiful, nuanced performance that amounts to about three minutes of screen time but stops the film short to remind the audience of the sad reality that is the life of an ex-con.

While his metier at the time was churning out scripts for television crime shows like Starsky and Hutch and Police Story, tangling with Edward Bunker’s material was likely a watershed moment for Michael Mann as he found a vessel in Bunker’s prose which could keep him invested in the gritty world of crime while keeping the slick, visual ideas he would pioneer completely intact. And, quite fortuitously, it would serve Mann well the following year as his debut television film as a writer and director, The Jericho Mile, was actually shot in Folsom Prison and Peter Strauss’s main character is nothing if not a dress rehearsal for James Caan’s Frank in Thief. It’s a less polished mesh of the poetic and the procedural than what would come later but it would show the true bones of a filmmaker whose exposure to the real deal would create a filmography that would both redefine the crime film and would set the pole position for the visual and editing style that would dominate pop culture in the 1980’s.

Indie Gems: 13 Moons


It’s anybody’s guess how ones like 13 Moons slip through the cracks, but in this case it was probably a case of nonexistent marketing and no effort put into a proper release. Despite having a cast that’s speckled with all kinds of big names, character actors and cameos, it has the appearance of barest of bones indie digs, and looks suspiciously like it was filmed bootleg/guerrilla style. I’ve not a clue what the story behind it’s conception is, but it’s a brilliant little flick that you won’t find anywhere these days, but deserves a look. It’s one of those moody, nocturnal L.A. set ensemble pieces in which a group of eclectic characters wander about, intersecting in various subplots until it finally comes together in the third act. This motif is overdone these days, and I just have to throw a jab at Paul Haggis’s Crash, which has aged like Kraft Dinner left for a week in the Florida sun, but my point is that they either work or topple over like a jenga tower buckling under the weight of each character and scenario. This one is so low budget it looks like it was shot on an etch a sketch, but thankfully the story is powerful, emotional, hilarious and strange enough to make a lasting impression. Steve Buscemi and Peter Dinklage are two sad-sack clowns who wander the nightscape, and in fact the image of absurdly out of place clowns roaming the lonely streets of NYC, getting caught up in a raucous night out involving a man (David Proval, an underused talent in the industry) and his young son who is dying of cancer and desperately seeks an organ doner, while his mom (Jennifer Beals) looks for them. Meanwhile there’s an insane clown played by Peter Stormare who’s running about, and when I say insane I do mean it. Stormare is always a little zany and flamboyant, but his work here takes the cake and whips it at the wall. It’s easy for actors to be uninhibited in indie fare like this, free from the prudence of studio chaperones, and he knows this, his character eventually playing a key role but most of the time careening around like a bat out of hell set loose in New York. The cameos are fleeting and fascinating, and one wonders who was buddies with who and pulled what favours to swing their appearances, but it’s nice to see them irregardless. Sam Rockwell and Michael Parks are fun as two bartenders, real life ex-hoodlums Danny Trejo and Edward Bunker show up briefly as.. hoodlums, and watch for quick turns from Pruitt Taylor Vince, Michael Badalucco and others. The film is thoroughly indie that no one has, or probably will ever see it, and my review probably adds to the scant half dozen or so write ups that are out there. Sadly many little treasures like this exist, unbeknownst to most. 13 Moons is a sweet, scrappy, somewhat star studded little piece that is well worth anyone’s time, if they love a good story in an oddball of a package. 

-Nate Hill

EPISODE 33: DOG EAT DOG with SPECIAL GUEST MATTHEW WILDER

dog-eat-dog-podcast

Podcasting Them Softly is honored to be joined with returning guest, Matthew Wilder, to talk about his latest film, DOG EAT DOG starring Nicolas Cage, Christopher Matthew Cook, and Willem Dafoe.  Matthew adapted Edward Bunker’s novel of the same name, and the film was directed by legendary filmmaker Paul Schrader.  Matthew is currently in pre-production on his next film; MORNING HAS BROKEN starring Lydia Hearst and Peter Bogdanovich.  Matthew is currently writing BAD COMPANY: THE COTTON CLUB MURDERS.  DOG EAT DOG is currently avalible to rent and purchase on VOD with a blu ray being released on December 27th.

Paul Schrader’s DOG EAT DOG – A Review by Frank Mengarelli

​DOG EAT DOG is akin to noir films of the 1950’s and 1940’s like KILLING THEM SOFTLY is akin to noir of the 1970’s and 1960’s.  The kinship doesn’t stop there; DOG is a film that not only is absurdly funny and brutally violent, but it is also an examination of the economy, the justice system, and the blue collar working class.

Filmmaker Paul Schrader is at his best when he dabbles in quasi topical films.  Matthew Wilder (who has a voice cameo on the phone during the opening scene) pens a sharply chaotic and humorous script adapted from Edward Bunker’s novel. 
Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Matthew Cook headline the film as a trio of career criminals who for an extended period of time have been removed from society and spent time in prison and are now simultaneously readjusting to society while struggling to survive.  Their plights are real, as they fight to live in a society that has cast them out and turned it’s back on them.

Cage and Dafoe are on fire.  Cage has never been so good.  A complete return to his zany and almost abstract form.  Willem Dafoe is cinematic treasure.  I can’t think of another actor who is a staple in the works of Lars von Trier, Paul Schrader, Abel Ferrara; yet is a viable mainstream draw, showing up in the upcoming JUSTICE LEAGUE.  
Much like KILLING THEM SOFTLY; DOG EAT DOG is not a film for the masses (or critics for that matter).  For as fun and as topical the film is, it is proud at how perversely humorous and transgressive it is as a whole.  DOG EAT DOG is the cinematic answer to the turbulence and dilapidation of contemporary America. 

DOG EAT DOG is available on VOD and is now playing theatrically in select cities.

Animal Factory: A Review by Nate Hill

  

Animal Factory is a prison set film directed by actor Steve Buscemi and based on a novel and subsequent screenplay by Edward Bunker, a real life ex convict, who played Mr. Brown in Reservoir Dogs. If that sounds like an irresistible team up to make this type of thing work, you’re thinking right. And I haven’t even mentioned the epic cast yet. It’s a scrappy little film that almost takes stage play form, as we watch a plethora of raggedy and very diverse inmates navigate the difficult, tragic and often touching life of incarceration. Edward Furlong (before he ballooned out) plays a young man barely out of his teens, locked away for marijuana possession, essentially a victim of the extremely harsh system they got down there in ‘Murica. He’s a sitting duck on the inside, but receives kindness and mentorship from veteran con Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe, excellent). It’s all done in an almost Robert Altman style way; characters jump in and out, events trundle by in centrifugal motion with little regard for one solid narrative, instead choosing to arbitrarily shift focus from prisoner to prisoner, whilst periodically checking back in on Furlong, who is the closest thing to a main protagonist. The cast is wonderful: Danny Trejo shows up (another guy who has done time in real life), Tom Arnold plays a pervert sicko who preys on Furlong, and Mickey Rourke is an absolute standout as Jan The Actress, a transvestite cell mate with a peppy life lesson or two for young Furlong. Watch for Bunker himself, Seymour Cassel, Mark Boone Jr., Chris Bauer, Buscemi as a parole board member and John Heard as Furlong’s father. Bunker no doubt based much of the story on his actual prison experience, and the dedicated authenticity shines through in every aspect of the film. Buscemi is no doubt an actor’s director (being one himself), and he lets every player have their moment to shine, while always contributing to the story as a whole as well. Prison films don’t get much better than this. Not to be missed.