Tuesday, March 30, 2010

1978: Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard)

1978: Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard)
One of these small-scale crime movies from the seventies that I absolutely love.  Great production value (incredible cinematography by The French Connection's Owen Roizman), great cast (Dustin Hoffman, Harry Dean Stanton, M Emmet Walsh, and Gary Busey), and a grit and grime that recall some of the early great B noir films.  

It also boasts one of the greatest heist scenes ever put on film.  In fact, I rank it right up there with the famous ones from Rififi and Heat.

It's so cliche but I'll go ahead and say it, they don't make movies like this one anymore.  It has a mainstream-level cast and crew but a dark, indy mindset.  And it's not post-modern and not ironic, it's earnest, hard-hitting stuff.  Give me this, give me Night Moves, give me The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.  Honesty and artistry, a certain pedestrian quality, these are among my favorite of all crime films.  

Other contenders for 1978:  There are still some titles I need to see from this year.  These include: Eric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois, Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven, Paul Schrader's Blue Collar, Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata,  Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman, Claude Chabrol's Violette, Ermanno Olmi's The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's In a Year of 13 Moons, Nagisa Oshima's Empire of Passion, Hal Ashby's Coming Home, Alan Parker's Midnight Express, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Karel Reisz's Who'll Stop The Rain, and Orson Welles' Filming Othello.  And, at some point, I need to revisit Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven as it's one I've struggled with in the past.  Meanwhile, from this year, I really like Francois Truffaut's La chambre verte.  I love John Carpenter's Halloween.  And my closest runner-up is Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter.

7/1/11 I watched Rainer Werner Fassbinder's In a Year of 13 Moons. Very intimate, raw, and clearly personal.  The production design and haziness of some of the scenes are extraordinary.  But overall the whole thing's also a bit of a slog.  

7/4/11 I watched Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven.  Quirky in typical Morris fashion, and curious as I almost always feel Morris just on the side laughing a bit at his subject and characters. 

7/21/11 I watched Ermanno Olmi's The Tree of Wooden Clogs.  It's an incredibly ambitious venture that is acutely observed and warmly rendered.  Ambles and captures the countryside in ways that remind of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, sans Altman's quirky stylings.  Never have I seen the rural parts of Italy look so alive.  Olmi asks for patience, but his eye is as natural and unobtrusive as the glory days of Kiarostami in Iran.  

9/29/11 I watched Paul Schrader's Blue Collar.  A Schrader with a big reputation, but I found it a bit too meandering.  It tightens up near the end and finds some nice dramatic moments.  But overall, I would say it's a little underwhelming to me compared to Mishima, Affliction, or even American Gigolo

10/18/11 I watched Maurice Pialat's Passe ton bac d'abord.  The young actors are all universally fantastic, but this one lacks the rigor of some of the best Pialat.  An interesting watch, if slightly underwhelming.  

1/3/16 I watched Monte Hellman's China 9, Liberty 37.  It's a wonder Tarantino hasn't remade this one.  This might be the only western I have seen that boasts a krautrock score, terrific work by the way by Pino Donaggio.  Further proof of Hellman's cult status as an auteur and even if the third act drags a little, this little known pic sits comfortably with Hellman's Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting and needs to be seen as a clear precursor to Dead Man and all of Tarantino's work.

4/7/17 I watched Daryl Duke's The Silent Partner.  Fairly interesting little crime film that I had never heard of until recently.  The plot seems fairly far fetched at times but Plummer is superb and it's certainly a good watch for fans of the genre.

1/12/20 I watched Eric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois.  Stylistically the film is an oddity in Rohmer's body of work.  An artifical period piece with a Greek chorus does not readily recall any of his other films.  But when considered as a morality tale with an ambition toward the transcendence of a Bresson or Ozu work, it becomes clear it is an Eric Rohmer film.  The final five minutes rank with the most raw and disturbing of anything he has ever made.  As a result, the desired effect of transcendence, of producing a final feeling or shot that rises above all that has come before, is masterfully achieved.

1/20/20 I watched Hal Ashby's Coming Home.  In terms of the emotions Ashby gets at and the performances he achieves, it might be the most impressive thing I've seen from him.  But the wall-to-wall soundtrack of famous songs gets tedious very quickly and never relents.

3/21/20 I watched Floyd Mutrux's American Hot Wax.  The music is wonderful, making me want to delve further into early rock 'n roll, and the story of Freed I knew very little of and am interested in learning more after seeing the film.  Not a film I loved but one that I am glad I saw.  

4/4/20 I watched Nanni Moretti's Ecce bombo.  Moretti's first feature already has many of the elements he would become known for - his great feel for music, his quick, playful wit, his political engagement and a structural looseness that is as much part of his appeal as it is a weakness.  Not too far from the zany, episodic feel of Woody's early features.    

11/19/21 I watched Alan Rudolph's Remember My Name.  Only the third film of Rudolph's I have seen so far and my favorite.  It meanders and never feels like it needs to make itself more  conventional, comfortable or easy for those watching.  It inverts a story we have seen often and makes us realize how foreign a simple swap for a female lead in this type of story can make us feel.  Often I have read how Altmanesque Rudolph is as a filmmaker but this film seems to have influenced Altman (Short Cuts and The Player) rather than the other way around.    

1/8/22 I watched Frederick Wiseman's Sinai Field Mission.  Interesting to see Wiseman working in black-and-white.  I am not totally clear why he would make that choice here.  Like all his work, it has some extraordinary scenes.  Memorable here are the guys all drinking one night and the gentleman explaining why he was proud of the mission but why it was not for everyone.  I would say it is a less subject-rich Wiseman work, it's also considerably shorter than most of his films.  

11/6/22 I watched Sylvester Stallone's Paradise Alley.  A slog for me where the style almost always seemed too deeply artificial and the music and editing unusually grating. 

2/4/23 I watched Robert Altman's A Wedding.  Altman's meandering style gets harder and harder for me to take, except for the few films of his where the characters get to me.  Although I have waited years to see this one, it barely succeeded in keeping my attention.

2/9/23 I rewatched Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz.  Now knowing more about The Band (after the Once Were Brothers doc), I definitely have a greater appreciation for this concert and why it was so important.


  1. It's a masterpiece and it's a shame more folks don't know about. It also contains perhaps my favorite performance from Hoffman, who is absolutely astounding. Great pick!

  2. This is one I have to get around to see it. Especially since I'm a fan of Theresa Russell(isn't she in this?).

    But really, Jeff. You must revisit DAYS OF HEAVEN pretty quickly. It's a great occasion to, also, since Criterion just released it on Blu.

  3. Jeffrey, I saw Straight Time last summer and was bowled over. You sum up its strengths quite nicely. It's a strong pick for a year I'm not so well versed in. Most of your to-dos are mine as well, though I can strongly recommend Empire of Passion and Dawn of the Dead. Right now it'd be between Straight Time and Deer Hunter for the top of my own list, but as I haven't seen the Cimino in a while I'm tempted to put Straight Time on top as well.

  4. Yeah, this is a really cool crime film. If memory serves, Michael Mann even worked on the screenplay for a time.

  5. Well Jeffrey, you surprised me here. I wasn't an especially enthusiastic fan of this film, but this is one I haven't seen in many years, so this vaunted placement is as good a reason as any to re-examine. Your passion here is palpable, and your bold comparison with RIFIFI speaks volumes. These are the kind of choices that make this polling so worthwhile.

    My Own #1 Film of 1978:

    In A Year of 13 Moons (Fassbinder; Germany)


    The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Schipisi; Australia)
    Days of Heaven (Malick; USA)
    Tree of the Wooden Clogs (Olmi; Italy)
    Perceval (Rohmer; France)
    Gates of Heaven (Morris; USA)
    Autumn Sonata (Bergman; Sweden)
    Animal House (Landis; USA)
    The Last Waltz (Scorsese; USA)
    Jubilee (Jarman; UK)
    The Deer Hunter (Cimino; USA)

    My own #1, a Fassbinder masterpiece and the follow-up Australian feature lead my own list in a fair year, with some superlative standouts.

  6. Tony,
    Theresa is really fabulous in this and she shot it right around the time of BAD TIMING so she was really at the top of her game.

  7. “Straight Time” is a film I saw at the time of its original release and it has been too long for me to remember much about it. I really need to watch it again before rendering a verdict.
    “Days of Heaven” is one of the most stunning and beautiful films ever made still I have to go with Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home.” Powerful and emotionally moving film about Viet vets. Jon Voight did a fantastic job and the use of real paraplegics made the film ever so more powerful. Ashby’s use of music on the soundtrack comes close to emulating Scorsese’s.

    #1 Coming Home

    Best of the Rest

    Days of Heaven
    An Unmarried Woman
    Animal House
    The Last Waltz
    Blue Collar

  8. Jeffrey - This is one that has been on my Netflix queue for quite some time and I need to watch it.

    The pick for me is a no-brainer - it has to be Malick's DAYS OF HEAVEN. It's quite possibly the most beautiful film I have ever seen (if it isn't, then another Malick is). And while those that don't like Malick are turned off by his narratives, I actually quite like the leisurely, take it is as it comes, pace to his films.

  9. Jeremy: I totally agree. Hoffman as Max Dembo is absolutely fantastic. I love this one, too!

  10. Tony, I have a hunch you'll really like this one. But you'll have to let me know.

    And thanks for the heads-up on the Criterion release of DAYS OF HEAVEN. I definitely need to see that at some point.

    Thanks, Tony! Always great to have you here.

  11. Samuel, so glad to hear that you love this one, too! I appreciate the kind words.

    Always great having you here!

  12. JD, yeah Mann totally worked on this. And I believe part of his push in making THIEF came as a result of being snubbed on this one.

    Thanks, JD! Always a treat to hear from you.

  13. Sam, you made my day with this comment:

    "Your passion here is palpable, and your bold comparison with RIFIFI speaks volumes. These are the kind of choices that make this polling so worthwhile."

    And it's a response like that that makes it totally worthwhile on this end, too. Thanks, Sam!

  14. John, I'm really looking forward to seeing that Ashby! I love SHAMPOO and THE LAST DETAIL and can only imagine I'll really like this one, too.

    Thanks, John. Always great to have you here!

  15. Dave, I absolutely owe DAYS OF HEAVEN more looks! And plan to watch it again in the near future.

    I'll be very curious to hear your take on STRAIGHT TIME. As someone who knows noir as well as you do, I'll be curious to hear how you rank this one.

    Thanks, Dave. Always wonderful to hear from you!

  16. I had the good fortune of speaking to Ulu Grosbard several years ago about this film. I explained to him that I had great affection for it, and it had had a terrific influence on my own work. He seemed surprised by this, and went on to say that much of the film had been improvised (which in turn had forced him to do a bit of improvisation with the directing). My sense was that the experience was not the best for him. Grosbard's directing style here and elsewhere can be best described as "pedestrian" -- he stays out of the way and allows the story to tell itself. I found this even more fascinating after he cited Grand Illusion and Raging Bull as two of his favorite films (both of which draw one's eye to the director's hand, not always a bad thing). Grosbard, whose background is in theater, has been underrated over the years for his film work. In this film and many of his others, he is shows he is particularly expert at a kind of atmosphere. This is how I mean "pedestrian", just as you used the word earlier - you feel the weight of reality rise from the frame, often making you feel like a witness rather than an audience. Considering his penchant for the "well made script" (The Subject Was Roses, True Confessions, even much of Georgia), his creation of this atmosphere is even more of an achievement. Finally, it's interesting to note that Grosbard was the young AD on another film from your list, Splendor in the Grass.

  17. Wow, Anonymous, what a fantastic post!

    I particularly love this:

    "This is how I mean 'pedestrian', just as you used the word earlier - you feel the weight of reality rise from the frame, often making you feel like a witness rather than an audience. Considering his penchant for the 'well made script' (The Subject Was Roses, True Confessions, even much of Georgia), his creation of this atmosphere is even more of an achievement."

    And I never knew that about his involvement in SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS. That's a fascinating tidbit.

    Thanks so much, Anonymous. Wonderful addition to the post with this one!