|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 14 December 1999|
Movies are occasionally designed to take place in "real time;" that is, the story takes place in the same time it takes to watch it. Two obvious examples are "Twelve Angry Men" and "Nick of Time". Far rarer are those movies that also seem to be taking place without any editing at all, as if the movie was one long take.
Alfred Hitchcock tried this with "Rope"; he used extra-large film magazines, shooting the film on sets where the furniture and walls could be silently raised out of camera range. That seems to have been only all-in-one-take (though there are least two "real" cuts in "Rope") until writer-director Josh Becker took on the challenge with "Running Time."
This taut suspense thriller deserves to be far better known; if you're at all interested in film technique, seek out this film, particularly in this well-produced DVD from reliable Anchor Bay. As noted by actor Campbell in the amusing commentary track, having the film seem to take place all in one long cut creates a kind of intensity of attention on the part of the audience. There are no scenic shots where you can relax for a moment, no cuts to pounding surf, no aerial views of the city. You're on the spot and with the actors from the beginning to the end of the brief, involving movie.
Campbell is best known for semi-goofy roles such as Ash in the "Evil Dead" movies, Brisco County, Jr. and now "Jack of All Trades;" he hasn't had many opportunities for straight, dramatic acting. When he gets the chance, as here and in an episode of "The X Files," he turns in excellent work every time. This features his best performance to date in a feature film; one can only hope he goes for more dramatic roles in the future.
He's Carl, a career criminal just being released from prison as the movie begins. He doesn't make any hard-to-keep promises about going straight, and as he leaves the prison, climbs into a van to immediately begin preparations for a heist he's planning to pull with his long-time friend Patrick (Jeremy Roberts). To his surprise and pleasure, Patrick has hired hooker Janie (Anita Barone) to satisfy Carl's pent-up sexual desires. It's a bigger surprise when, after they've finished their (not explicit) sex, Janie and Carl recognize each other as old high school friends.
After Janie leaves, Patrick picks up expert safe-cracker Buzz (Carl Davis) and, to Carl's anger, unreliable junkie Donny (Gordon Jennison). Things don't improve when they burst in on the laundry office where they're convinced they'll get thousands of dollars. The safe isn't the type they've prepared for, the laundry manager has a heart attack, Patrick and Carl get into a (funny) argument about a football game, and the security guard makes a break for it.
The movie becomes even more suspenseful when Carl is on his own, wounded and stumbling through the streets of Los Angeles.
Although the all-in-one-take style would seem to have presented incredible problems, on the narration track, both Becker and Campbell admit that the shoot went so smoothly that they were able to wrap early every day. The movie was shot on 16mm, usually with a Steadicam, sometimes handheld. The black and white stock enabled them to move smoothly from interiors to exteriors, and the small cameras allowed ease of movement by the actors. Becker had carefully designed the script to hide the cuts -- they last between three and eight minutes -- by panning along buildings, coming in on Carl's white shirts, or by swift whip-pans.
He claims to be able to spot every one of Hitchcock's cuts in "Rope," while his are more invisible. This is partly a matter of opinion, partly a matter of familiarity with movie techniques; the whip-pans (which sometimes start in, say, Los Angeles and end in Santa Monica) are obvious in themselves as devices to hide a cut. But whether Becker completely hid the cuts or not is no more important to the success of "Running Time" whether Hitchcock did in his movie.
The movie is very suspenseful, and the technique enhances the tension so much that it remains a nail-biter even on multiple viewings. Becker was well aware that he needed to break up the straight line of the narrative at times, so he wrote in elements like the amusing quarrel between Carl and Patrick, and odd encounters the fugitive Carl has with, first, a bum and later Donny the junkie.
Naturally, the movie is very talky; it's hard to evade that with this technique. But the talk is realistic enough to be convincing, and colorful enough to be interesting. Furthermore, the acting is excellent all the way around, although Campbell's focused, nervous performance is the best in the film.
The story is familiar; most movie heists go wrong one way or another -- otherwise, why bother telling the story? They only go right when they're a setup for a falling-out among thieves, or something else going wrong. Here, the heist and its immediate aftermath are the story.
Becker shows a lot of courage in even trying something like this, particularly on what is obviously a low budget -- but he deserves a great deal of praise for bringing it off with style and conviction. On the one hand, it's a small independent movie with a familiar story -- but on the other, he and his hard-working cast and crew have brought off an entertaining, inventive and suspenseful thriller using a technique only the great Alfred Hitchcock tried before. "Running Time" is well worth your time.