After the flurry of activity that followed his star-making performance in The Graduate (1967), Dustin Hoffman became incredibly selective in the ’70s and ’80s, sometimes letting years pass between projects. Not coincidentally, his commitment to the parts he actually took was incredible, manifesting as deep involvement with story development and meticulous research into the lifestyles of his characters. The excellent drama Straight Time is rooted in this uncompromising craftsmanship: Hoffman’s character appears in virtually every scene, so his performance shapes the film.
Hoffman stars as Max Dembo, a small-time crook recently released from six years in prison. After a few halting attempts at living within the law, Max drifts back to criminality in part because his hard-driving parole officer, Earl Frank (M. Emmett Walsh), finds drug residue left in Max’s dingy apartment by Max’s useless friend, fellow ex-con Willy Darin (Gary Busey). Feeling like he’s damned to incarceration whether he commits crimes or not, Max starts executing risky robberies despite the promise of his new romance with Jenny Mercer (Theresa Russell), a sweet young woman he met at an employment agency.
The intense drama of Straight Time stems from an exploration of whether Max ever really has the opportunity to go straight. In a way, the picture is an indictment of the social structures that ensure a lifetime of punishment for any significant infraction. Based on a novel by real-life criminal Edward Bunker and directed by Ulu Grosbard, all of whose films are distinguished by extraordinary acting, Straight Time has authenticity to burn. It’s uncomfortable watching Max gauge the reactions of people who discover the truth about his past, and excruciating to see him tossed back in the slammer on the mere suspicion of a parole violation.
The genius of Hoffman’s performance is that he plays Max as an addict: Whenever Max gets his teeth into a promising score, he loses the ability to perceive anything except the loot in front of him, so he frequently overstays his welcome at crime sites, endangering himself and his accomplices. Therefore, the movie provides a resonant portrait of a career criminal, someone who, accurately or not, believes no other options exist.
The performers supporting Hoffman are terrific, with Busey and a young Kathy Bates playing an impoverished couple trying to steer clear of trouble despite the Busey character’s many weaknesses. Harry Dean Stanton essays a frightening professional crook whose ruthless discipline makes him a public menace. Russell is credible and sensitive in one of her first roles, and Walsh does wonders with the movie’s thinnest characterization. Although a slew of writers worked on the script (including A-listers Michael Mann and Alvin Sargent), it’s to Grosbard’s and Hoffman’s credit that the film comes together as smoothly as it does: Straight Time is essentially a character study, but the movie also works, at least in moments, as a gripping thriller. More importantly, it resonates.
Straight Time: RIGHT ON