Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard, 1978)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Straight Time.

In this highly underrated classic of ’70s crime cinema, Dustin Hoffman shrewdly stars as Max Dembo, an ex-con just released from a six-year stretch in prison for armed robbery and struggling to go straight while under the oversight of his smug parole officer. Despite finding a job, a home, and even a girl of his own, Max remains trapped in an unrelenting criminal system until he breaks free with ruthless, criminal abandon and tragic consequences. Adapted from Edward Bunker’s No Beast So Fierce, featuring a score by David Shire, and boasting a terrific supporting cast including Theresa Russell, Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey, M. Emmet Walsh, and Kathy Bates, Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time is a lean and bitter portrait of inevitable recidivism.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • New 4K digital master with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary from 2007 with director Ulu Grospard and actor Dustin Hoffman
  • New interviews with actors Hoffman, Theresa Russell, and Kathy Bates
  • Straight Time: He Wrote It For Criminals, a 1978 documentary on writer Edward Bunker and the making of the film
  • Theatrical trailer
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • PLUS: An essay by novelist Jonathan Lethem

Like its main character struggling with pressures of the parole system while he attempts to re-enter mainstream, law-abiding society, Straight Time just had too much going against it when it was released in 1978. Production troubles, disputes over creative control, a contentious release, and a hostile legal battle all practically preordained its commercial failure, notwithstanding its positive critical reviews and Gene Siskel naming it the best film of that year. In the years since, Straight Time has thankfully developed a reputation as an under-the-radar classic of ’70s American cinema and a forgotten masterpiece of acting by Dustin Hoffman. Surely the retrospective embrace of talented character actors like Harry Dean Stanton, M. Emmet Walsh, and Kathy Bates has contributed the incremental rediscovery of Straight Time as well, yet the film has unfortunately never reached the profile of Mean Streets, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Long Goodbye, or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. It deserves such consideration and a Criterion Collection release of Straight Time would help solidify the film’s place amongst similar works of its era.

Straight Time begins with Edward Bunker, an apparent career criminal who pivoted into a life of writing and acting thanks to the film’s source novel, No Beast So Fierce. Bunker had movies in his blood – he was born in Hollywood in 1933 to a chorus girl mother who played in a few Busby Berkeley musicals and a father who worked as a studio grip, though they divorced when he was four. Bunker banged around various foster homes and reform schools until he was convicted of burglary at 14. He stabbed a youth prison guard at 17 and became San Quentin’s youngest inmate at age 19. Over the next 20 years, Bunker was in and out of prison for felonies including robbery, battery, and check forgery. He eventually read Cell 2455, Death Row, a novel by Caryl Chessman, another San Quentin inmate, and Bunker committed himself to becoming an author, enrolling in the University of California’s correspondence English program. After a series of unpublished efforts, Bunker found success in 1973 with No Beast So Fierce, an unforgiving look at a paroled thief struggling with life after prison. When he was released in 1975, Bunker focused on writing and acting, working closely with Dustin Hoffman as he prepared for Straight Time (with Bunker back in prison for bank robbery) and even assuming a small role in the film. He wrote and acted in Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train (1985), was cast in The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987) and Tango & Cash (Konchalovsky, 1989), and famously appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) as Mr. Blue.

Dustin Hoffman and director Ulu Grosbard had previously collaborated on Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971) and it was Grosbard who put No Beast So Fierce into Hoffman’s hands. Hoffman acquired the film’s option in 1974 through his company Sweetwall Productions Inc. with the intention of it being his initial project with First Artists. Hoffman signed with the production company in 1972, agreeing to make two features each budgeted at no more than $3M and he sacrificed an up-front salary for greater creative control. Alvin Sargent’s script was a massive 179 pages and with Sargent too busy with Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980) to provide much assistance to the production, it was Michael Mann who provided a redraft before Jeffrey Boam worked the script down to 124 pages. Hoffman intended on producing, starring in, and directing the film, but took himself off the project with days of shooting. Producer Jerry Ziesmar recounts that Hoffman was unable to complete any filming on the first day of shooting, constantly requiring camera resets for a simple establishing shot of Folsom State Prison and resulting in concerns being expressed by First Artists. Hoffman recalls working for four days as director but being disgruntled with his efforts after viewing daily rushes and feeling pulled in too many directions, and so he reached out to Grosbard to take over. Grosbard, for his part, recalls Hoffman having already been through 10 weeks of pre-production and 3 weeks of shooting and with almost nothing to show for it. Production proceeded without a final screenplay, despite the script’s re-writes and having Bunker frequently on set, and that it was “Cassavetes time” for at least a portion of the shoot, with Grosbard and Hoffman improvising scenes as they went along.

Just because he turned over the director’s chair to Grosbard didn’t mean that Straight Time stopped being Hoffman’s movie and the pair reportedly fought for control during the production. Hoffman’s constant struggles to maintain agency over the project took its toll on the star, leading to quite an acrimonious end, but it was surely a boon to the lead performance. Hoffman plays Max Dembo with captivating tension — a career criminal in and out of custody since his teens, now ready to go straight after a six-year stretch for armed robbery. Max quietly crackles with an awareness of his precarious freedom and an impatience to put his criminal past behind him. Initially, Max works hard at setting himself up for civilian life by finding a place to live, getting a job in a can factory, and even swinging a date with Jenny Mercer (Theresa Russell, remarkably assured in only her second screen role). Mercer is a beautiful and sympathetic young woman Dembo meets at an employment agency and she seems impressed with Max’s sincerity and directness. Still, Dembo’s commitment to his parole conditions are not complete. He fails to report to his halfway house on the night of his release, preferring a night of walking freely and a hotel bed. He associates with a dim but enthusiastic criminal associate, Willy Darin (Gary Busey in a genial and likeable performance). And Max even turns a blind eye when Willy shoots up in his hotel room. All of these are breaches of Dembo’s parole conditions and Willy’s wife Selma (Kathy Bates) sees the danger the ex-con poses to Willy during their friendly visit. In a scene-stealing moment of soft-spoken assertion, Selma asks Max to keep his distance, noting how well Willy has walked the line and how Max risks undoing them both simply by sharing a cup of coffee with her husband.

Equally cautious, but nowhere near as considerate as Selma, is Max’s parole officer, Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh), a smug, shit-eating man with little faith in his charges and preoccupied with having Max pander to his authority. The wheels come off for Dembo when Earl finds Willy’s book of burnt matches under Max’s bed during an unannounced visit to the con’s hotel room and Earl tosses Dembo into jail overnight for a drug test. Max resents Frank’s failure to account for his refutations and for the lack of track marks on his body that vouch for his innocence. His test comes up expectedly clean, but the association with a drug-user contravenes his parole and Earl requires Max give up his hotel room and relocate to a halfway house. Earl expects gratitude from Dembo for not reporting his parole breach and compliance by naming the user that visited his room, but it’s a bridge to far for Max and he cracks, assaulting Frank in his car and leaving him on the roadside handcuffed to the meridian’s chain-link fence with his pants around his ankles. Max is out of prison and he won’t live under the arrogant, one-sided dominance Frank embodies. He quits the man and the parole system, stealing Frank’s car and promptly robbing a Chinese grocery like an addict finding a fix.

The balance of Straight Time follows Max’s return to a criminal life, planning jobs with Mickey (Edward Bunker) and carrying out smash-and-grab robberies with Jerry Shue (Harry Dean Stanton). It would have been easy to romanticize Dembo’s return to outlaw life but the film avoids this. The intensity of Max’s anger and hatred frame his actions as almost vengeful, as if every crime he commits is an assault on the legal indignities foisted upon him. If the unsupportive parole process continues to treat Max as a criminal, then a criminal he will be. Dembo becomes a kind of return of legality’s repressed: a monstrous critique against a justice system disinterested in his rehabilitation and relying on his recidivism. It’s tempting to view Max’s reaction as justified, but one can’t help but wonder if Max’s imagined future with Jenny would have ended up just resembling that of Jerry and his wife — sitting in middle class comfort next to his backyard pool and planning a car purchase, only to plead under his breath to another recent parolee, “Get me out of here.” As they are, Max and Jerry contrast significantly. For Jerry, crime is a means to an end, a shortcut to material gain without the working and saving. If the benefit isn’t there, Jerry wants no part of the risk and so he becomes increasingly frustrated with Max whose crimes serve only to stick it to some faceless oppression. Jerry won’t barge into a hold-up without the right firepower and he won’t deviate from a carefully laid plan, while Dembo can’t risk enough or steal enough to quell his roiling resentments. Thankfully, Hoffman and Grosbard provide Max will a tragic but graceful denouement that saves Jenny from her own youthful loyalty and reconciles Max to his self-destructive impulses. It’s a poignant and muted ending fitting to a film that eschews explaining the reasons and motivations of its central character. It’s an ending that lingers by its whimper rather than caps it with a bang.

Hoffman was likely unprepared for the experience of wrapping up Straight Time and his own Dembo-like discontent with its unexpected terms. The film went on hiatus in July 1977 with two weeks of shooting still planned. Hoffman was exhausted and a transition from Dembo’s visit to Willy to his final interaction with Jenny at the gas station still had to be worked out. Grosbard intended on using the break to assemble the existing footage and refused an increasingly fixated Hoffman access to the assembly process at the request the editor. Hoffman tried to go over Grosbard’s head and First Artists President Phil Feldman took the opportunity to close the production without further consultation. The star and uncredited producer who brought the project to First Artists responded by filing a lawsuit against the company asserting that First Artists wrongfully seized control of Straight Time and Agatha (Hoffman’s second feature with First Artists) and claimed $61M in damages. The public dispute grabbed headlines a month before Straight Time’s release and First Artists countered by claiming that Hoffman’s actions and derogatory statements had negatively impacted the film. Moreover, First Artists pointed to a takeover clause in Hoffman’s contract that entitled the company’s actions when production halted 23 days over the movie’s 61 day shoot and $1M over its $3M budget. No resolution to the legal dispute appears reported, but the perception of Straight Time as a film maudit must have impacted its legacy. Hoffman, for his part, seems to softened somewhat on the film, still asserting that only the first 20 minutes are his but acknowledging that it is one of his best performances.

Roger Ebert’s “Stanton-Walsh Rule” famously declared that “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad,” although the critic later conceded some exceptions that proved his rule. With that in mind, Straight Time might make the case that even a doomed production can be made great by the presence of both actors, although such an assertion would give undeserving short shrift Edward Bunker’s source novel and influence, the stellar supporting contributions of Gary Busey, Kathy Bates, and Theresa Russell, and Dustin Hoffman’s modestly determined, then tenaciously defiant performance. Straight Time is a classic film of ’70s American cinema, an evocative character study that presents a man’s life and his acts as they are, without easy explanations or justifications. It may even be a film that was better off for its troubles. Hard media collectors can see Straight Time via an MOD DVD released by Warner Archive. With the Warner Archive currently on thin ice and Straight Time at risk of becoming minimized further, MMC! thinks that the film deserves better and that starts with a wacky “C.”

Straight Time’s most indelible images are arguably the triptych of mugshots that conclude the film and document Max Dembo’s near lifetime relationship with crime and incarceration. These photos seem tailor-made for use in a Criterion cover treatment and so it’s of little surprise that prolific movie poster artist Tony Stella has offered his own take on this concept. Stella is already a friend of the Collection for having contributed the cover treatment to Criterion’s release of Claudine (John Berry, 1974) through Alphaville Design, a joint venture between Stella and Midnight Marauder. MMC! would love to see a reworked design of Stella’s Straight Time poster used for a Criterion release.

Credits: The cover summary for this imaged edition is adapted from various synopses of the film, while the commentary and the documentary are ported over from previous DVD editions of the film. Jonathan Lethem was chosen to provide an essay given his past contributions to the Criterion Collection, his appreciation of Straight Time, and his 2008 interview of Ulu Grosbard at the BAM Rose Cinema in 2008 (excerpts of which can be found YouTube).

This post was gratefully informed by the AFI Catalogue of Feature Films’s entry for Straight Time, Sean Axmaker’s article on the film and Michael “Mitch” Toole’s brief biography of Edward Bunker for TCM, William Boyle’s post at Goodbye Like a Bullet, and Stephen Saito’s article for The Moveable Fest.

2 thoughts on “Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard, 1978)

  1. moviefanman March 11, 2021 / 12:04 pm

    They just aired this on Turner Classic Movies last night, what irony 🙂

  2. James Morazzini March 11, 2021 / 6:30 pm

    I remember seeing this in one of my college film classes. Powerful film

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s