Rewind: Films of the 60s, 70s, 80s – Straight Time (1978)

by RICHARD WINTERS

Straight Time is an engrossing, highly realistic drama about a parolee by the name of Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) who gets released from prison and cannot seem to stay away from the allure of crime despite his initial efforts. The movie is based on the novel No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker. Bunker himself was a career criminal who was in and out of jail from 1955 to 1975 and only managed to finally turn his life around when this novel, which he had written while incarcerated and deals with many of his own exploits, got published. Bunker co-wrote the screenplay (and appears in a bit part playing a character with a really bad comb-over by the name of Mickey).

I found this film gripping from the second it started and infinitely fascinating the more it progressed. It gives you a whole new perspective on things as you are forced to see it from the viewpoint of the criminal and as an outsider looking in. Every facet of the story and characters is believable and the film does a very good job of being stark and searing without ever becoming exploitative or overtly shocking. I remember back in 1977 when I toured the new county jail in the town where I grew up when it was first opened and before it housed any inmates. I remember the officer describing the rather degrading procedures all felons had to go through when they were first booked including being stripped searched and forced to take a shower nude while a fully clothed officer stood by and watched them. The scene where Max and other criminals are “welcomed” to the L.A. County jail worked exactly like that. It was so authentic and frank that it seemed almost like a documentary.

The essence of the story revolves around Max and his relationship with his parole officer Earl Frank that is wonderfully played by noted character actor M. Emmet Walsh. Earl does his job a little too well. He shows a constant distrust of Max and gives him no respect while over-zealously tracking his every move until Max finally snaps. It is a terrific indictment on the flawed system as it examines just how hard it is for the criminal to go straight and stay straight even if they want to. It also exposes how it seems almost designed to push the person back into crime in its refusal to ever treat the criminal as a human being. The part where Max finally has enough and overpowers Earl and chains him naked to a fence in broad daylight on a busy L.A. freeway while hundreds of cars drive by him should leave an indelible image on the minds of anyone who sees it.

The remaining supporting cast is great as well. Theresa Russell is surprisingly effective as Max’s girlfriend Jenny Mercer. Usually she has played more glamorous types of roles, but here she is perfect as a very ordinary woman who inadvertently gets caught up in Max’s eventual self-destruction until she finds herself in over her head. I liked the fact that she wore no makeup and the camera was able to pick up her natural beauty through regular lighting. The only issue I had with her character is that it is never made clear why she would fall in love with Max so quickly and what it was about him that she liked, since he shows some clear destructive tendencies right from the beginning. To me it just came off as a bit forced and phony to have an otherwise well-adjusted woman that he meets at an employment agency get so infatuated with him after just one date that she immediately agrees to move in with him, visit him in jail, and even quit her job on the spot and go on the run. I know it is standard practice in a Hollywood film for the anti-hero to always have “his girl” that can be used to humanize him, but there still needs to be more of an explanation and history shown to her character in order to validate the relationship.

Harry Dean Stanton gives another great performance as Jerry Schue. He was a long-time partner to Max during the robberies he did before landing in prison. Jerry has now turned his life around. He has a nice house in the suburbs, an honest job, and a beautiful wife. However, when Max comes to visit, and the minute his wife leaves the room, Jerry begs him for a crime job that they can do together because he finds his new found life to be boring. I thought this made a great statement as to how the sterile suburban existence is not the American dream for everyone and how it will not necessarily “domesticate” those that still harbor a reckless urge. I also found it interesting how Jerry views the art of robbery as an actual profession that he takes a great deal of pride and care in. When one of the men shows up late for a planned robbery Jerry even calls him “unprofessional.”

The robbery scenes are filmed in a diverting way. In most films the camera gets real close to the action in order to heighten the tension. Here the action is captured from a long shot that allows the viewer to see just how chaotic and frantic a robbery really is as well as showing how the most nervous people in the place are the thieves themselves.

If I have one complaint with the film it is in the fact that the second hour becomes rather difficult to watch as it focuses solely on the self-destructive downward spiral of the main character. Max has some good qualities, which makes it all the more painful to watch. Yes, some of his anger is justified, but his insistence at “evening the score” with everyone who has wronged him ends up only hurting himself. Hoffman is outstanding as usual. It is interesting to compare his role here playing a very violent character with the pacifist that he played just seven years earlier in Sam Peckinpah’s classic Straw Dogs.

If you are looking for an intelligent, searing drama that is still relevant today then this no-holds-bar character study is highly recommended.

My Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

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Last Time on Rewind: Thieves (1977)
Coming Up Next: 11 Harrowhouse (1974)

2 responses to “Rewind: Films of the 60s, 70s, 80s – Straight Time (1978)

  1. I just watched this film last night and was also blown away. I think that Hoffman gives one of his best, most concetrated and realistic performances but I didn’t find the second hour hard to watch because his character made it engrossing ever more so. And the ending was, believe it, unexpected. In a good way.

    Very amazing film! I place it up there with Five Easy Pieces, in terms of 1970s films that are terrific without trying too hard and succeed in every step.

    • Richard Winters

      I’m glad you enjoyed this movie as much as I did. I definitely agree this is one of Hoffman’s best and sadly least known performances.

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