Criterion Prediction #148: Straight Time, by Alexander Miller
Title: Straight Time
Director: Ulu Grosbard
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Theresa Russell, Harry Dean Stanton, M. Emmet Walsh, Gary Busey, Kathy Bates, Rita Taggart
Synopsis: Following his release from a six-year prison term, career criminal Max Dembo (Hoffman) attempts to lead an honest life, but circumstances draw him back into a life of crime.
Critique: To talk about Straight Time, you have to talk about Dustin Hoffman. This is his movie; Hoffman acquired the film rights to No Beast So Fierce, the novel on which the film is based, that was penned by the very man Hoffman portrays in the movie. Edward Bunker was a career criminal who found a career as a writer making novels based on his criminal exploits; Straight Time would be the first of many screenwriting credits. He’d also act, he appearing in Straight Time, The Running Man, and Reservoir Dogs as the briefly-seen Mr. Blue.
But Straight Time wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for Hoffman, who saw the potential for a screen adaptation, got the rights, put up the money as the producer, put himself in the lead role. If things had gone his way, he would have directed it, too. Fortunately, Hoffman realized that he had bitten off more than he could chew, and handed the reigns to Ulu Grossbard, with whom he collaborated on Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? in 1971. While it would have been curious to see how Hoffman’s directorial debut would have turned out, Straight Time came out as a sturdily-crafted low-key masterpiece that is anchored in a transformative performance by its leading player. Dustin Hoffman might have achieved timeless status in our collective cultural vernacular with his range of prominent roles – Midnight Cowboy, Tootsie, The Graduate – and yet Straight Time seems to get the short shrift, unjustly so because it might be the great actor’s finest hour.
Everything seems calibrated throughout; Straight Time is a rare case where it feels like this command of tone is coming not just from the leading actor/producer but more from his performance. We’re familiar with method acting, and the dedication and torture actors will put themselves through in preparation for a part, but Hoffman’s transformative turn as Max Dembo is built with such stunning naturalistic power it becomes the tuning fork that seems to make everything else in the film harmonize. Perhaps audiences weren’t warming to the idea of the nebbish Hoffman playing a tough-guy, but hanging that title on his interpretation of Dembo would be a complete misnomer, and discounts the intuitive psychology and interiority is going on in bringing this character to life. He’s acting with his chest; his emotional turns are volatile, unexpected and calculated. There’s a shortlist of actors who achieve this internalized brand of intense restraint – Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Sean Penn – and throughout Straight Time there isn’t an idle moment where we don’t feel the rolling boil in our protagonist’s chest. The emotional crossfire of a man who is at odds with a penal system, his own past, the uncertainty of his future and along the way we’re wondering when that stray round will pierce what little veneer of control he has.
Hoffman plays Max Denbo as positively uncomplicated, a simple but intelligent man who is mercurial, dangerous but ultimately human. Not in that “he’s a sociopath, but he’s got a family so he must have a heart of gold” ala Tony Soprano or Walter White, because Denbo isn’t a gangster, nor is he a criminal mastermind. Dembo tries to lead a straight life, and through circumstances and his own reckless tendencies (attributed to a persnickety PO played by M. Emmet Walsh) returns to a life of crime as if he was reapplying to a job.
The otherness and glamour of bank robberies and heists are removed in the plain execution carried out by Dembo, and the ne’er do well cronies he works with. We’re treated to a young Gary Busey, whose youthful swagger as a heroin-addicted ex-con makes his narrative all the more tragic. Another treat is a potent, but humble shaggy dog performance from Harry Dean Stanton. He’s always a small wonder, and his everyman quality is juxtaposed with an animalistic malice as he becomes Dembo’s partner in crime. M. Emmet Walsh is perfectly cast as a frustratingly strict and smarmy parole officer. His actions don’t feel one iota exaggerated and if that’s the case it’s no wonder criminals are seldom rehabilitated.
Straight Time is more than a boys’ club of stickup boys, and dudes with guns, though. Theresa Russell, as an employment consultant who falls for the plain-speaking Dembo, is an illuminating presence throughout. A young Kathy Bates also turns up in an early role, and you can spot a very young Jake Busey.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: The spectrum of stylistic crime cinema within The Criterion Collection begins somewhere with the taciturn dudes in the work of Jean Pierre Melville, and that line leads us to the procedural realism of Michael Mann’s debut feature Thief. In between, there’s the sobering grit of Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the pulpy noir in Blast of Silence, the expressionistic flare of Coppola’s Rumble Fish, and the tough-guy drama of Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11. These are all classics in the bigger conversation of crime dramas, and yet they are singular enough not to be immediately identified with the genres we lump them into. Straight Time falls into this non-category. It’s not quite a gangster film, nor is it a heist movie, but it takes a hard look at the psychology of crime and how the penal system operates. Straight Time would be one of those occasions where Criterion could open a new generation to an undervalued classic with a major actor at the helm. And in contrast to their catalog, it might be good to shirk auteurism and feature a film that isn’t aesthetically tethered to a renowned figure in cinema, sometimes art comes from places where you don’t’ expect. Straight Time deserves a renaissance. I don’t see it going to Shout Factory, nor does it fall into Kino territory; Twilight Time could scoop it up, but given the amount of Warner films Criterion has been putting out this one could be getting a spine number.