Straight Time is one of those movies that colored future crime drama for decades. Eddie Bunker and an uncredited Michael Mann gave the film a shot in the arm when compared to crime dramas of the time. The focus on Hoffman’s Max Demo is not show a punished man, but someone who has been shaped by the criminal system. He’s a bad guy, but no options are offered to get him out of that system. So, he just dives deeper and deeper into that world.
Dustin Hoffman and M. Emmet Walsh are a great antagonistic duo in Straight Time. Walsh as that scummy parole officer never gets enough credit. He knows how to needle and push Hoffman in a way that jumps off the screen. Busey and Stanton are great as Hoffman’s criminal pals, but they don’t get the same level of response out of him. Also, what else needs to be said about Theresa Russell? There is a reason why she was the arthouse darling for nearly 20 years. Terrific stuff.
What I love so much about Straight Time is the bleak nature of the ending. Especially, as they cut together youthful photos of Hoffman to show that Max has been a victim of the system for ages. Very few films manage to capture the hopelessness of the career criminal. That’s because it’s not fanciful or helps to create fantasies for an audience to embody. It’s a look at escalating disappointments that eventually overtake your existence.
Eddie Bunker is a personal favorite, since my nerdy kid self looked him up after seeing Reservoir Dogs at the now defunct arthouse theater. It took a former criminal writing about his life and associated experiences to get that downbeaten despair perfectly in book and film form. People like Michael Mann would later polish it by finding a way to make cinema meet that concern.
What always held my attention about crime films like this is how they are able not to fall into the melodramatic trap. Ever since the early 1930s, we want our criminals to be sympathetic or outright villains. Films like Straight Time take the third option of showing them as failed individuals. When you study film history long enough, you start to see the strengths and weaknesses of what a mainstream audience accepts from its entertainment.
Mainly, it’s assumed that artistic temperament doesn’t translate to what average people will accept. Well, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Straight Time has a giant fanbase. The average Movie Chad doesn’t gravitate to movies about the futility of poor people existing in a system not meant for them. But, that doesn’t mean this movie couldn’t be an entry point to new viewers.
What Dustin Hoffman accomplishes in Straight Time is that kind of humanity that doesn’t exist outside of dark interpretations of Steinbeck novels. John Ford and Henry Fonda helped turned Tom Joad into a moralistic hero among the downtrodden. But, Hoffman and Grosbard realized that sometimes the downtrodden are going to be forced into the muck forever.
Straight Time is a film about not having the recourse to get your piece said. Especially when the only things you know are crime and getting into more trouble. Stunning work all around.
Warner Archive brings Straight Time to Blu-ray with a commentary from Dustin Hoffman and the director. You also get a vintage 1970s featurette about Straight Time. Plus, there’s a trailer. Look at the screenshots to get an idea of the A/V Quality. You won’t be disappointed.