Tom Crowley checks out Ulu Grosbard’s 1978 film Straight Time, which recently screened at the IFI as part of its Dustin Hoffman Retrospective.
We begin Straight Time (1978) with our anti-hero Max Dembo (Hoffman) leaving prison after a six-year stint for armed robbery. Director Ulu Grosbard tricks us. He gives us a shot of a woman and her kids. We assume they are there to see our protagonist come home. They are not there for him. Max jumps in the back of a pick-up truck and hitches a lift to central Los Angeles. Max is alone, make no mistake about it. He visits the house of an old friend Willy (Busey). He is told by Willy’s wife (Bates) he is not welcome, he is a bad influence.
A career criminal Max is determined to go straight. In the space of a week he gets a job, finds a room to sleep in and even begins courting his recruitment agent Jenny (Russell). Max, however, never feels particularly comfortable in his environment. Over dinner with Jenny he explains that many inmates find it scarier on the outside; one gets the feeling that he is indirectly talking about himself. Despite this, Max gets on with it, Jenny the dominating motivator for him to live the straight life.
A serious obstacle to this is his passive aggressive parole officer Earl (Walsh). It is not easy to determine whether Earl is purposely being a menace or if he is just plain ignorant. Either way he is a thorn in the side of an already edgy Max. Max comes home one night to see his bedroom door open. Earl is nosing around his digs. He finds matches and automatically assumes Max is ‘fixing’. He sends him back to the county jail while he awaits results of a drug test.
This is the final straw for Max. He goes on the run with the support of Jenny. The plan is to rob enough money to leave L.A. for greener pastures. Once Max re-accepts his criminality we see Dustin Hoffman’s performance become far more external. The shifty and uneasy straight Max becomes far more purposeful when he embraces his identity as a criminal. First incarcerated as a juvenile, it is the only life he knows.
Max is connected. He runs in criminal circles, his only friends are criminals or ex-criminals. For better or worse this is who Max is. One of the ex-criminal’s is Jerry (Stanton). Max convinces him to go on a spree with him. Not that he needs much convincing. Jerry is a successful paint contractor but the straight life is boring the hell out of him. It is a terrific performance by Harry Dean Stanton who brings comedy and pathos to the film.
The first impression of Max is that he is a moral person caught up in an immoral world. He believes the world is unfair and he does everything he can to cheat it, a classic counter-culture hero. It is shocking then to see how greedy and at times violent Max can be. His greediness and violent behaviour is never glamorised either by the script or Hoffman’s performance. Max sucks you in, turns on you and the ultimate feeling you have for him is pity. It is one of Hoffman’s many career highs.
The script is adapted from a novel by Edward Bunker called No Beast So Fierce. A former career criminal himself Bunker turned to writing and acting. Film fans will perhaps most recognise Bunker from playing the part of Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). Max and his misadventures are based on Bunker and his life. The title of the book pleads sympathy for the devil. The film seems to at the beginning but ultimately loses this one track approach mainly on account of Hoffman’s layered performance. Bunker shares a screenwriting credit for this film with two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent (Julia (1978) and Ordinary People (1981)) and Jeffery Boam. Bunker also has a cameo in a bar with a mustachioed Hoffman. They look like they could be father and son, or a weird cross-generational twin.
Straight Time is a fantastic, stirring, character-driven film. It is not always mentioned in Hoffman’s popular filmography but it is among the talented actors best work. A major flaw in the film is the relationship between Max and Jenny. It is never really clarified what attracts Jenny to Max so much. The answer is in the writing. Female characters are either underwritten or stereotyped in this film. This is an accusation you could point at many of the New Wave American films. Women are the object of male desire. They will do anything for them for little or no reason. Watching back as a revisionist it looks like a collective fantasy in the male-dominated writing rooms.
Having said that, this reviewer believes that Straight Time along with Scarecrow (1973) are two films from their potent era that deserve more attention.