Straight Time (1978) is a lesser known film from another decade that has quite a bit to offer contemporary fans of indie films. The last film I reviewed on this blog was John and Mary, which starred Dustin Hoffman along with Mia Farrow. So, in keeping with the theme of older Dustin Hoffman films, I decided to revisit Straight Time, directed by Ulu Grosbard.
Straight Time is a sneaky movie -like it’s protagonist, Max Dembo (Hoffman), the movie doesn’t quite play it straight and let you know where it’s headed. In fact, it might be good advice to not even read this review until you’ve seen the movie (if you’ve never seen it before or don’t remember it). While I won’t reveal the ending, it’s hard to give a relevant description without revealing a little more than you should really know before seeing it.
The film starts out with Dembo being released from prison after serving a sentence for burglary. He is unlucky enough to have the parole officer from hell, Earl Frank, expertly played by M. Emmet Walsh. Frank is an underhanded, racist redneck type who does everything he can to hinder Dembo’s rehabiliation. So at first we think this is what the film is about -a non-violent ex-con trying to go straight, and coming up against social injustice. The fact that Dembo is played by the normally mild-mannered Hoffman makes us all the more likely to see things this way. But that’s not quite what’s really happening here.
There are clues from the start that Dembo has real problems conforming to authority in any form. His first confrontation with Frank comes when, instead of spending his first night of freedom in a halfway house as he was ordered to, he slips into a hotel. He unsuccessfully tries to reach Frank and tell him this, and the two are immediately at odds. Now we can sympathize with Dembo’s desire to be free of the system, and see that Frank is a stickler for the rules, but we can also see the futility of breaking the rules the first day you get out of prison.
Things start to look up for Dembo when Frank relents and lets him stay in a hotel (albeit an awful looking one-room fleabag) and he manages to get a job in a factory. Not only that, but he manages to land a date with the young woman who works at the employment agency, Jenny (Theresa Russell).
When Dembo hooks up with an old friend, Willy Darin (Gary Busey), things go downhill for him. Darin, a drug user, shoots up in Dembo’s hotel room and the next day, Frank discovers evidence of this on a visit. Dembo is thrown back into jail and tested for drug use. Although he’s only there for a night, we see that this experience has taken away any chance of rehabilitation. When Jenny visits him, he looks back at her with dead eyes that tell us that, no matter what else happens, his fate is already sealed.
The rest of the film is a mainly depressing look at Dembo’s slide back into a life of armed robbery. He meets up with another old friend and fellow thief, Jerry Schue (Harry Dean Stanton, another great character actor), and the two begin a two man crime wave around Los Angeles. We also see more and more evidence of Dembo’s violent nature and inability to change.
Straight Time is not exactly an uplifting film, as it has a theme that’s akin to Greek tragedy, where a person’s destiny is determined by fate and his inborn character. While we want to root for Dembo and see him as a victim of society (as personified by the undeniably evil Frank), the film forces us to confront the fact of his own culpability in everything that happens.
Max Dembo is a fascinating character not because he’s a hardcore sociopath, but because he’s an understated one. He almost appears too lazy to look at himself honestly and make the effort to change. We can imagine that, had everything worked out perfectly for him, and had he run into a sympathetic rather than a sadistic parole officer, he might have actually gone straight. However, life seldom works out perfectly. So the film suggests that social ills such as crime are not simply a result of the flawed characters of the criminals or the flaws of society, but a complex mix of the two.
Straight Time is a vintage 1970s movie with a great cast. For complete details see the IMDb page for the film.