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.

Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka

Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and I mean that in more of a disturbing way as opposed to a compliment. It’s a story that could have been given the straight n’ narrow Hollywood biopic treatment, and instead plays like the loudest, most disconcerting fever dream you’ve ever had, and you find yourself wondering how such a straightforward story can just seem so *odd*. A lurid meditation on greed and a balls-out cautionary tale for people who think that money can buy happiness, most of it focuses on Gene Hackman’s stubborn prospector Jack McCann, who after striking gold in a melodramatic Yukon set prologue, retires to his own Caribbean island to languish in riches. Life is anything but happy for him though, as his troublesome daughter (Theresa Russell) has brought along her scheming boyfriend (Rutger Hauer), who clashes with McCann right off the bat. Hauer is a no good schmooze with his hands in a bunch of dirty pies, Russell is headstrong and belligerent, and soon McCann becomes paranoid, angry, volatile and wrapped up in his own deluded mind. It also doesn’t help that a crime syndicate from Miami wants to build a casino on his island, an idea he abhors. They’re headed up by Joe Pesci and Mickey Rourke, two memorable faces who are ultimately eclipsed by the volcanically intense and overbearing performances from our three leads. This is an ugly, brutal picture of human beings at their utter nadir of social interaction and mental well being, a swirling maelstrom of malcontent that circles the toilet boil and plummets down the drain to a graphically violent conclusion from which there is no respite or glimmer of catharsis. I kind of get what Roeg was going for, but he’s so tonally off kilter and tries to hammer it home with such pulverizing, unnecessary force that we feel too shellshocked to get any sort of real message from the thing. The acting is quite impressive though, credit where credit is due. Hackman has never been more terrifying, Hauer is sleaze served a la flambé and Russell has a staggering courtroom monologue that should be in record books for most lines memorized in a single take, not to mention be up for acting awards all over the board. Bring a strong set of nerves to this one, and be prepared for little payoff after you sit through the depravity it has to offer.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory with Nate: The Box

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The Box is a moody little crime drama thriller starring James Russo, whose appropriately brooding persona lends itself to grim neo noir films such as these. He’s an actor who has almost entirely worked in B movies for a long time, and while you have to watch out for most as they are usually geniune piles of dog shit, this one is a jewel amongst the rubbish. Russo plays Frank Miles here, an ex con trying to go straight, sticking with the dead end job his P.O. has given him to stay out of trouble. Soon he meets beautiful waitress Dora (Theresa Russell) who falls in love with. The two of them try to start a new life together, but as we all know sometimes it’s very hard to run from your past, and soon enough trouble comes looking for them. Frank tries to get some money owing to him from his sleazebag of an ex-associate Michael Dickerson (a detestable Jon Polito) and things go wrong. Violence ensues, and Frank finds himself in the possession of a mysterious box which he can’t open and hasn’t a clue about. Dora has a scumbag boyfriend in club owner Jake Ragna (a terrifying Steve Railsbac) who I’d dangerous, volatile and obsessive about her. Soon, an evil corrupt Police Detective named Stafford (Michael Rooker) makes their lives hell as he searches for the box. Frank and Dora take refuge at the home of Stan (Brad Dourif, excellent), Frank’s former cell mate,  friend who is now a weed dealer. Even this may not be enough to keep them safe, as the long arm of the crooked law probes, and Stafford gets closer and closer. It’s a depressing situation forged by bad decision and the perhaps inescapable knack for trouble that some people tend to have, whether it’s coincidence or a measurable character flaw is eternally up for debate. The pair try so hard to fix their lives and still seem to be headed for a tragic dead end. Russo has sadness in his eyes in every role, as well as a boiling anger to match it, he fills out his protagonist very well. Rooker and Railsback make scary work of the two villains, especially Rooker who uses the kind of blatant brutality and abuse of power that are essential ingrediants in very dangerous men. Dourif is Dourif, which is never not mesmerizing, and Russell does the wounded angel thing down to the bone. A sad story, with a dream cast (for me, at least), a downbeat reflection on lives gone down the wrong path, a diamond in the rough noir thriller of the best kind.