STRAIGHT TIME (1978) / Crime-Drama

Running Length: 114 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language, violence, sexual content, and some nudity.

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Theresa Russell, Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey, M. Emmet Walsh, Kathy Bates, Sandy Baron
Director: Ulu Grosbard
Producers: Stanley Beck, Dustin Hoffman, Tim Zinnemann
Screenplay: Jeffrey Boam, Alvin Sargent, Edward Bunker (based upon the novel No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker)

Straight Time is a masterpiece of modern film making. It is both a gripping crime-drama and an engrossing character study, and it features one of the most developed criminals ever to hit the silver screen. Dustin Hoffman stars as Max Dembo, an ex-convict on parole after just being released from prison. Max is a man who doesn’t exactly desire a life of crime but sees no other way fit to making a living. He has been toughened by years behind bars and, because of this, has become better at what he does best: steal. The knowledge of what will happen if he is caught makes him all the more determined not to be. Does he ever question whether what he does is right or wrong? Have years of being incarcerated changed him? That question can be answered in one of the film’s earliest scenes, when Max is asked if he understands the conditions of his parole: “I gotta get along with you or you’re gonna send me back to jail.”

Like the millions of others who are frequently subjected to imprisonment, crime is not an obsession but a way of life for Max and he is forever doomed to continue it. He’s practically incapable of doing anything else. Regular day jobs disinterest him. There is no excitement in living a simple life, and even though Max gives it a go at first, he eventually gives in to his daily routine of liquor store hold-ups.

Straight Time takes on structure as it goes along, but is never conventional in doing so. It studies Max rather than trying to explain him. The writers, Jeffrey Boam, Alvin Sargent, and Edward Bunker (the latter whose novel the script was based upon), never make it clear what it was that got him to this point. Instead, they focus more on what it is that drives him to continue doing what he does.

In the film’s early stages, Max’s primal opposing force is his Los Angeles parole officer, Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh), who is cruel and patronizing and offers little help in the way of making sure that Max stays clean. Frank is unwilling to forget the past and is more concerned with catching Max in the act of doing something illegal so he can put him right back in jail. Walsh always succeeds in playing the bad guy (see Blood Simple) and is marvelously detestable here. He snarls and cackles and offers one of the most sarcastic grins you’ll see in a motion picture.

The real action begins halfway in. Max partners up with Jerry (Harry Dean Stanton), an old associate, and the two execute a series a profitable heists; first a bank then a high-profile jewelry store. The tension increases. It becomes only a matter of time before Max’s actions get him caught and we’re stuck waiting for that moment to come.

What most crime films lack is character, and while bank heists and firefights are exciting to watch, they do not bring or add any of the depth that is needed to keep us so emotionally attached to our protagonist. Although Max is not necessarily a “likable” lead, he is one that we can reason with. We understand his motives and personality, and we see a world that is unforgiving of his nature and unwilling to accept him for who he is. Director Ulu Grosbard does nothing to “liven” up this image; he paints his picture in shades of gray. This is a grim portrait of a grim character, and grim it is all the way until the very end.

There is a fine cast of performances including the likes of Gary Busey, Harry Dean Stanton, and Kathy Bates, but the best comes from Hoffman, whose meticulous performance the film dwells upon. He manifests the character of Max better than any other actor imaginable and not once does his acting ever falter. In a career that has spanned over three decades, his performance in Straight Time is one of his greatest, and also one of his least-known.

This is not a film about a man moving up in a world of crime, but rather about his decline and eventual demise. The farther up he goes, the harder it is to go back down. Giving up begins to seem more and more futile, even if it means running for the rest of his life. That’s a risk he’s willing to take.

Final rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

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