Straight Time Review

Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) is released after six years inside for burglary. At first he aims to go straight, get a job and return to society, but a run-in with a contemptuous parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh) puts him in violation of parole and on the run. Max is inexorably drawn back into his old criminal ways.

Straight Time is a curious film, an uneasy hybrid of character study and heist thriller that falls somewhere between the two stools. The project originated with Edward Bunker, a longtime convict who wrote about his experiences in a novel called No Beast So Fierce. Bunker is co-credited with the screenplay (with Alvin Sargent and Jeffrey Boam, Bunker’s contributions apart from the original storyline being mostly dialogue) and he plays a small role in the film. He went on to a career as a character actor with two further writing credits (Runaway Train and Animal Factory, the latter based on his novel) before his death in 2005. No Beast So Fierce became a pet project of Dustin Hoffman, which was to become his directorial debut. However, after filming had began, Hoffman passed over the director’s chair to Ulu Grosbard. The title was considered too literary for the intended audience, so it became Straight Time.

For forty minutes out of just under two hours, Straight Time shows a man trying to rebuild his life. Here the film is at its subtlest – notice how a small detail of Dembo taking a typing test in the employment office (Dembo not wanting to stop when he’s told to) pays off considerably, later in the film. A romance with Jenny (Theresa Russell) begins to bud. The major conflict is with the parole officer, Earl Frank. Walsh plays this role superbly: professional to a fault but with his contempt for the criminals he deals with very clear. The film loses something when Walsh leaves the plot. A problem is that Dembo isn’t that three-dimensional a character: at the very end, when Grosbard flashes up past mugshots of him, going backwards in time to Dembo as a juvenile offender, it assumes a weight that the film hasn’t really earned. It aspires to a noirish intensity that it doesn’t attain. Ultimately we don’t care much for Dembo, despite Hoffman’s hard work. Theresa Russell, in a very early pre-Nicolas Roeg role, gives what isn’t much more than a standard girlfriend role some depth and shadings, and Harry Dean Stanton and Gary Busey give solid support. That’s Kathy Bates, barely recognisable, as Busey’s wife and Busey’s real-life son Jake (aka Jacob) as his screen son.

Belgian-born Ulu Grosbard was primarily a stage director who made occasional cinema films. His strong point is his work with actors, his major weakness is that his films epitomise content over style – visually bland, and sometimes rather shapeless and poorly paced. Straight Time shows his good and bad points. In his favour, he does stage a good jewellery-story robbery – it was advised by real-life robbers, so you should hope it’s realistic.

Straight Time is very much a Seventies picture: a low-key slightly grainy look, with a character-led storyline, an anti-heroic lead character, taking advantage of contemporary licence for strong language. (It’s not graphically violent.) It’s certainly of interest for quite a few reasons, and does have something of a cult following, though an undersung masterpiece it isn’t.

Straight Time finds its way onto disc as part of Warners’ “Director’s Showcase: Take Two”, alongside Whose Life Is It Anyway?, Prince of the City and Steelyard Blues. The DVD is NTSC format and encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The anamorphic transfer, opened up slightly to 1.78:1 from the intended 1.85:1, is very good. The DP was Owen Roizman, a specialist in 70s grit, and the picture is clean and sharp, with a light filmlike grain. Blacks are fine as is the shadow detail in some quite dark scenes.

The soundtrack is the original mono, by no means an audiophile’s wet dream, but clear and well balanced, with David Shire’s rather mournful jazz score sounding fine. Subtitles are available for the film only.

Of the four “Directors’ Showcase: Take Two” DVDs that Warners have released simultaneously, Straight Time is the most endowed with extras. The other discs have a trailer with a commentary or a featurette. This one has all three.

The commentary track is the work of Grosbard and Hoffman, seemingly recorded separately and edited together. Given the circumstances of Hoffman’s being replaced as director by Grosbard you might expect fireworks, but you don’t get them. Clearly thirty years of water have flowed under this particular bridge, and Hoffman is particularly complimentary about Grosbard’s work and Grosbard is diplomatic about his disagreements with Hoffman. Hoffman certainly likes to talk, and his part of the commentary includes several anecdotes of Edward Bunker and his input into the film, especially the insights he gave the star into the mindset of criminals. Grosbard is drier, but still interesting.

The featurette dates from the time of production. “Straight Time: He Wrote It for Criminals” (22:54). This centres on Bunker, mixing interviews with behind-the-scenes footage and extracts from the film. Halfway through, as if anxious that they might be glorifying a criminal, ex-cop and writer Joseph Wambaugh turns up to dispute several things that Bunker has said up to now. Meanwhile, the voiceover takes pride in the accuracy of Straight Time. This featurette is in 4:3.

The trailer is anamorphic 16:9 and runs 1:44, and does a fair job of selling the film as the thriller it really isn’t. An unfortunate piece of editing implies that Hoffman is about to rape M. Emmet Walsh, which is not what happens in the film itself!

A worthwhile addition to Warner’s rapidly expanding back catalogue, Straight Time should be available quite inexpensively and presents its film well.

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