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.

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” A review of Blade Runner The Final Cut – by Josh Hains 

I remember the first time I saw Blade Runner: The Final Cut as if it happened earlier this week, and not four or five years ago. I believe it was 2014 when I watched it, but I could be wrong. I’d recorded the movie on my DVR off the Movie Channel, it was early one morning sometime after 9 am, and I thought I’d see what all the fuss regarding this cut was about. Prior to this, I had seen the Director’s Cut and The Theatrical cut in full once each, and bits and pieces of both of those cut multiple times on TV over the years. I didn’t think much of Blade Runner prior to this occasion. I could appreciate the craftsmanship of the movie, and liked it, but it didn’t have the profound impact on me that I had heard others talk about. I felt underwhelmed, let down, disappointed. I wanted to love the movie the way others did, but just couldn’t. Then I saw The Final Cut. 

It’s easy to say that from frame one I was hooked, and it’s even easier to use all kinds of elaborate and colourful words to express how beautiful those opening moments are. But I’m being honest when I tell you that The Final Cut made my jaw drop right from the first frame, and from there on I was hooked like a fish. That Vangelis score had been humming in my ears for nearly three minutes by the time the plumes of fire billowed across the L.A. cityscape, flying cars screamed toward the building of the Tyrell corporation, before the flames danced in the eye of the Blade Runner called Holden, and my jaw fell in awe at the sublime sight of it all. 

35 years later I expect you may know the plot of Blade Runner by now. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a Blade Runner for the LAPD, is tasked by Bryant and Gaff (M. Emmet Walsh and Edward James Olmos, respectively) with tracking down and retiring (killing) four Nexus 6 replicants (human-like androids that are deemed illegal on Earth), including Roy Batty (Rutgers Hauer), who seeks his maker for longer life, as Nexus 6 replicants only have a four year life span. The very nature of this particular job causes Deckard to call into question his own morality and identity, the meaning of life itself, and his own existence. 

Sci-fi neo-noir detective stories are few and far between, but the best of them (including Blade Runner and it equally terrific sequel Blade Runner 2049, both written by the brilliant Hampton Fancher) will stick around for a long time coming, and it’s not because of their plots, which always start out seeming overly complex, but wind up being rather simple once you’ve pieced them together properly. I know that what has caused Blade Runner to stay with me like dirt under my fingernails doesn’t have anything to do with plot, story, or even for the most part, acting. No, what’s stayed with me for so long has always been the feeling I get while watching the movie. Between the gorgeous cinematography and haunting synthesizer induced score, I simply find myself in awe of the sublime nature of the sights and sounds of this Blade Runner world. 

When a replicant is fleeing Deckard midway into the movie, crashing through large panes of glass while blasts from Deckard’s police issue sidearm crash into her body while the melancholic Vangelis score chimes in your ear, I feel the same sense of awe that fills my body and mind that the opening sequence also gives me. Or later, when Roy Batty is delivering a brief monologue about things he’s seen, beautiful amazing things we couldn’t possibly fathom described so simply yet so elegantly, as if pulled from a work of poetry, I once again find myself swept up in awe. 

A good movie can show and tell you various things that will surely entertain you in many ways, but a great film has the power to make you feel something profound. Sometimes we remember a movie for a great iconic quote, or a stylish well choreographed action sequence, or a barrage of snappy conversational dialogue, or even a heap of gut busting jokes. But what tends to stick with us more are are the feelings we get while we watch them. Jaws puts us on edge, anticipating what’s to come with whitened knuckles until we jump out of our seats frightened by the shark erupting from the bowels of the sea. No Country For Old Men makes us care deeply for Llewellyn Moss and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, and when they could be in peril (especially the former), we fear for them, our bodies tense just like when we watch Jaws, and then we ease when they survive the latest potential threat. 

Blade Runner makes me fearful for the safety of Deckard, makes me hope that Deckard can retire the replicants and survive the day, then settle down and try live some semblance of a normal life with the replicant he grows to love (and is supposed to retire) named Rachael (Sean Young). It makes me want to follow Deckard around around this futuristic Los Angeles and take in every sight and sound the master Ridley Scott doesn’t show us. When Roy Batty says; “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate.”; I believe him, and I wish I could have been there to bear witness to those visual wonders of their beautiful nightmare world. 

Seeing what becomes of Deckard and Los Angeles in Blade Runner 2049, I think I will wish even more now with future viewings of Blade Runner, that I could have joined Deckard and Batty in seeing these unbelievable sights of that world at that specific time, for those moments have truly become lost in time. Like tears in rain.