Straight Time

Dir: Ulu Grosbard, 1978. Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Harry Dean Stanton, Theresa Russell, Gary Busey. Drama.
Straight Time

Edward Bunker is probably one of the most criminally (no pun intended) neglected writers in American history. Best known for his role as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs, the character wasn't a huge stretch for him. He worked as a career criminal from the time he was a teenager up through his forties. He also wrote a slew of books that depict convict life with searing realism--real ball-kickers of stories that remain thrillingly authentic today. In the late '70s he helped adapt his novel, No Beast So Fierce, for the screen, which resulted in this somewhat shockingly little-known film starring Dustin Hoffman. Why such little fan-fare for it? My guess is that it was just a bit too real at the time.

Hoffman plays Max Dembo, a convict freshly released from prison for armed robbery. He meets with his sociopath of a parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh), who reminds him that just one step out of line will earn a one-way trip behind bars again. Max insists he's ready to play it straight in a newly reformed life--and we believe him. He speaks earnestly, and a few minutes later in screen time he lands a job at a recycling plant, and even scores a date with a sweet-natured secretary (Theresa Russell). But it doesn't take long for his chances at a normal life to crumble; a meeting with a buddy from the old days (played brilliantly by a doe-eyed Gary Busey) sets off a heart-breakingly unfair chain of events. I'll only mention a few keywords that should drum up some interest for the last two-thirds of the movie: "shotguns," "Harry Dean Stanton," "jewelry store heist," and "freeway nudity."

Straight Time humanizes convicts with more depth than most crime films are willing. These particular characters are basically good people who just can't hack it in normal society--non-conformists who were born flawed and get further damaged from a system that we gather never provided them much of a choice to begin with. I don't want to reveal what triggers Max's downward spiral, but it only happens out of caring too much for somebody. Bunker's story suggests that for anyone to walk a truly straight path after incarceration they must erase all emotional ties. It seems like a life few people could live, and it's precisely this feeling of hopelessness that will keep Straight Time in the realm of obscurity.

Stylistically the film is about as 1970s as it gets--long takes, muted colors, and subtle camera movement that never calls attention to itself. While mostly a character-driven piece, there's also a number of riveting action sequences that pretty much show viewers how, exactly, to perform a robbery. Bunker and co-writers Jeffrey Boam, Alvin Sargent, and an uncredited, pre-Heat Michael Mann know how these things actually work, and when Max breaks into a pawn-shop about half-way through the film, it's hard not to admire the ingenuity of it. Director Ulu Grosbard allows this scene to play out in real time, and creates effective suspense and tension by showing all the details. Straight Time is remarkable for not only delving into the psyche of convicts, but for also showing how--well--good some of these people are at their profession.

While currently out of print on DVD, it still turns up used at Amoeba pretty frequently. While not the most popular, upbeat, or written about, it's my opinion that anyone with an interest in '70s American cinema should know about this one.

Posted by:
Paul Losada
Oct 5, 2010 5:26pm
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