One of Dustin Hoffman's great performances is now available from Warner Archives; as a hapless ex-con on a losing streak, Hoffman is riveting...
by Don Stradley
Straight Time begins with ex-con Max Dembo getting off a bus in the middle of Los Angeles. The city looks drab, overrun with cheap steakhouses and pawn shops. The music on the soundtrack is jaunty, as if we’re about to watch a comedy, and Dembo shambles along the LA sidewalks like a Chaplinesque everyman, his shoulders hunched against the onslaught of life on the outside. He doesn’t relish being free, for as he tells a character later in the film, people on the outside are judged only by “what you have in your pocket.” In prison he was judged only but what he was. In his case, he was a burglar. The movie is about an ex criminal trying to go straight, when it seems fate is working against him. We feel badly for Max, especially when we realize his biggest obstacle will be his own stubbornness.
We’re then introduced to Max’s parole officer, a grinning sadist played by M. Emmet Walsh. As Earl Frank, Walsh is the sort of heel who seems designed to antagonize guys like Max Dembo, friendly and helpful one moment, bullying the next. He’s brutal in the way he casually checks Dembo’s arm for needle tracks, and in the way he pretends to be trying to help. The film is based on a novel by Edward Bunker, an author who did some prison time and probably knew characters like Earl Frank. In some films, an entire story could be built around the nasty parole officer and the pitiable ex-con, but Straight Time has more on its mind than a simple good guys versus bad guys scenario.
Max is in trouble as soon as he meets Earl. He bypassed the room at the half-way house that was arranged for him upon his release and checked into a motel, instead. He’d wanted a night to himself, before he had to go back to people telling him when to go to bed. Earl tells him he has an attitude problem. Max (Dustin Hoffman) struggles to remain calm.
Hoffman built this project from the ground up, reading Bunker’s novel No Beast So Fierce, and then visiting Bunker where he was still serving time in San Quentin. Hoffman bought the rights to the book and was originally slated to direct, but turned the reigns over to Ulu Grossbard, with whom he’d worked before. Hoffman visited Folsom Prison to get some understanding of how prison conditions a man, and grilled Bunker about life behind bars. Whatever he learned helped fuel, as Pauline Kael described it, Hoffman’s “crabbed intensity” as Max. There are moments in the movie where Max seems torn between crying and lashing out; he spends so much time trying to remain calm that he’s almost numb. When he does finally erupt, such as when he assails his parole officer, it’s more than catharsis; it’s practically a rebirth. This is one of Hoffman’s greatest performances.
After Max leaves Earl Frank handcuffed to a fence along the highway, he begins rallying his old criminal consorts to join in him in a series of heists. And they’re eager. Harry Dean Stanton plays Jerry Schue, an ex-con who has spent years living a straight life and is itching to get back into the action. When Max and Jerry rob a small bank, they have the assignment down to clockwork; as Jerry waves his shotgun in the air and makes horrific threats to the bank employees, he’s secretly looking at his watch, timing the robbery down to the very second. When they leave the bank, Harry asks Max to rate his performance as a violent robber. “How Was I?” “Scared the shit out of me,” Max says. The quick conversation predates John Travolta and Sam Jackson’s Pulp Fiction banter about “Getting into character,” which makes sense since Tarantino used Edward Bunker as an actor in Reservoir Dogs and was obviously a fan. (Bunker was given an early release, and made a living as a writer and actor. He appears in this film as one of Max’s connections.)
Max is a tragic figure because the simplest things in life - a job, a home, someone to love - will never be his because of his past mistakes, and because his life seems destined for calamity. He meets Jenny, (Theresa Russell) a sympathetic young woman at an employment agency. Cautiously, they become lovers. She senses the hurt in Max, and is curious about him. But the love of a good woman doesn’t help Max. It frustrates him that he can’t even buy Jenny dinner because his lousy job at a cannery pays so little. When Jenny learns he’s gone back to stealing, she says she will stay until it becomes too much for her. He accepts her offer. She’s one of the only people to show him kindness, and he’s glad to have her, even if there’s an ultimatum.
The change that comes over Max when he returns to stealing is revealing. In his first few scenes with Jenny he’s almost charming, showing a glimpse of the man he may have been before prison. After he’s back to robbing, he becomes more tight-lipped and impatient. He’s filled with self-loathing because all he can do, and all the world allows him to do, is steal.
Even L.A. seems to change as Max goes back to crime, it’s streets becoming wider, it’s layout more ominous, it’s bars and poolrooms more dank. Even his cronies change, revealing themselves to be unreliable, and even a bit stupid. They aren’t tough ex-cons; they’re nervous men kept in line by mouthy wives and mountains of debt.
One of the key characters is Willie (Gary Busey), an old friend from prison who is now married with a child. Willie works part-time as a mechanic, while secretly wishing to play drums in a rock band. He’s also a junkie. Max enjoys an evening at Willie’s home, but when Willie isn’t around, Willie’s Wife (Kathy Bates) tells him to stay away. She’s very matter of fact about it, saying that Willie is trying hard to live a clean life and doesn’t need distractions. Max agrees, but the pain on his face is visible. When Willie shows up at Max’s room at the halfway house, he immediately starts shooting up. “I could get three years for that,” Max says, then shrugs as if it doesn’t matter. One way or another, the shit is going to land on Max.
Busey is very fine as Willie, a less than bright man who tries to soften the harsh edge of the outside world by staying high. Stanton, one of the great unsung character actors in Hollywood history, is a scene stealer, particularly when he and Hoffman are plotting their robberies. Stanton’s Jerry may crave the excitement of robbing, but he’s also horrified of what could go wrong. He knows a certain amount of bullshit is required to be a tough guy, but his poker face cracked long ago.
The New York Times’ Vincent Canby described Straight Time as “an uncommonly interesting film about a fellow whose significance is entirely negative.” Yet, I’m not sure if that’s fair description of Max Dembo. He made me think of Eugene O’Neil’s comment about tragedy being more rewarding than lighthearted entertainment. I’ll take Straight Time over Tootsie any day.
On a side note, Hoffman later sued Warner Bros, and his own production company, for taking away his creative control of the film. He’d worked for considerably less than his usual price in order to have control of the movie, but when he was accused of going over budget, he lost his final cut approval. “Only the first 20 minutes of the movie is mine,” Hoffman said, claiming the studio’s interference stopped the film from achieving its full potential. I can’t imagine what else he had in mind for this very realistic and very human movie.
Straight Time is available on the Warner Archive streaming service.