Throughout its history, Hollywood has had a lot to answer for when it comes to romanticizing criminals, but the accusation could never be leveled at the uncompromising, considerably underrated gem Straight Time. Featuring Dustin Hoffman in a possibly career-best performance as Max Dembo, a jittery Los Angeles ex-con attempting to go straight, the film never once strikes a false note in its depiction of the sporadically exciting but ultimately desperate and sad life of an average criminal. Straight Time is resolutely a film of the provocative 1970s era, in that it explores the full spectrum of Dembo’s criminal psychology — the greed and stupidity that doom him, as well as the professionalism and exhilaration of a perfect “score” — while refusing to make easy moral judgments.
At the start of the film, Dembo is released from prison and makes a sincere attempt to re-enter law-abiding society. But the crushing boredom of a minimum-wage job, combined with humiliating visits from a repugnant parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh), soon lures Dembo back to his old ways. When a jewelry-store heist with a loyal partner (Harry Dean Stanton) goes horribly awry, Dembo goes on the run, but the resignation on his face seems to augur that a return to prison is all but inevitable. Indeed, the film’s fatalistic last line and concluding frames imply that “institutional men” like Dembo are born rather than made.
Hoffman initially intended to direct and star in Straight Time, which is based on Eddie Bunker’s memoir No Beast So Fierce. But the actor soon found the combined demands overwhelming and turned over the directing reins to Ulu Grosbard, whose emphasis on low-key realism made him a perfect foil for Hoffman’s intense performance. Primarily a theater director, Grosbard favored letting many scenes play out in wide shots with few edits, a strategy that highlights both the bracing spontaneity of the performances and the tension of the narrative.
In a commentary on this DVD, Grosbard notes that his visual approach was aided immeasurably by cinematographer Owen Roizman, ASC, who innately had a “great sense of what is real and what isn’t.” The filmmakers were determined to present the gritty underbelly of Los Angeles — disheveled Burbank backyards and dilapidated downtown rooming houses — and Roizman’s naturalistic style, honed on raw classics such as The French Connection and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, was perfectly suited to the task. It’s a relief to see that Warner Bros. has treated Straight Time with the respect it deserves; this transfer features superb clarity, nicely saturated colors and minimal age artifacts.
Grosbard and Hoffman are both featured on the commentary, though it quickly becomes clear that they did not record it together, and that they don’t even seem to be watching the film as they make their comments. Commentaries like this gemerally lack good, specific observations, but Grosbard and Hoffman are expansive talkers, and this supplement is well worth the viewer’s time. Hoffman describes how he did extensive research with Bunker to try to understand the dark mindset of a character like Dembo; in one instance, the ex-con told Hoffman that even as the actor was talking to him, Bunker was thinking about what he could steal from him, how he could kill him, and how he could get away with it. Ever the Method actor, Hoffman began practicing this behavioral “exercise” on everyone he met.
In addition to the film’s original theatrical trailer, the DVD offers an interesting period documentary on the making of the film, “Straight Time: He Wrote It for Criminals,” which looks at Bunker’s life, his writing, and his role in assisting the filmmakers. There is great footage of Bunker and convicted bank robber John Carlen instructing Hoffman on how to be convincing during the film’s centerpiece bank-robbery scene. (They must have given good advice, as the actors accidentally tripped the bank’s actual alarm and would have had a considerable lead on the cops if they’d fled the scene. One of the arriving cops tells Hoffman, “If you’d picked a bank closer to the freeway, you could have been in San Diego by now.”)
Bunker is a fascinating fellow, but features like this sometimes run the risk of glorifying a man who committed some fairly reprehensible acts. Fortunately, ex-Los Angeles cop and crime-fiction writer Joseph Wambaugh is on hand to offer some perspective. Responding to Bunker’s belief that law-abiding “squares” don’t face the moral choices of a man inside prison, Wambaugh notes, “Hell, Eddie Bunker has never lived as a square in his entire life, and he doesn’t know that square people have moral choices to make each and every day. It’s awful tough for a guy to raise six kids and come home dog-tired and be morally responsible in ways that are beyond the ken of an institutional man.”