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Classic Film Review: Straight Time (1978)

Out of the Gutter Online adds an exciting new element to Review Tuesdays with classic film reviews from the great Bill Boyle.

By Bill Boyle

Dustin Hoffman Leading a Life of Crime
Directed by Ulu Grosbard and based on Edward Bunker’s novel No Beast So Fierce, written while Bunker was in prison, Straight Time (1978) is meandering and quietly brilliant in a way that’s representative of the works I'll be writing about.

Dustin Hoffman plays paroled criminal Max Dembo. Fresh out of prison, Dembo aims to live honestly, but he’s thrown off course by shitty parole officer Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh). At an employment agency, he meets Jenny Mercer (Theresa Russell), who helps him find work and is charmed by his honesty. Dembo catches up with an old pal, Willy Darin (Gary Busey), a decision that stomps out his efforts to live straight. Willy shoots heroin in Dembo’s room and leaves behind a book of matches that Frank finds on an unannounced visit. Frank accuses Dembo of shooting up even though there’s no tracks on his arms. Dembo’s thrown back in prison while they wait for the results of his blood test. We see him subjected to the same miseries and degradations he was subjected to as an inmate as he goes through the routine of being processed, surrounded by old ex-cons who have failed at making it in the straight world. When Frank springs him a few days later, the results having come back negative, Dembo explodes. In one of the film’s greatest scenes, he attacks Frank while he’s driving, pulls over, and cuffs him to a fence in the middle of traffic, pants around his ankles. On the run now, Dembo goes back to his old ways. He meets up with associates and finds out about a score. He hooks up with his friend Jerry Schue (Harry Dean Stanton) and promptly gets back to the business of robbing banks. Early success leads to careless planning. Dembo scopes out a jewelry store with Jenny one day, and he and Schue go back to rob it. But a series of bad decisions on Dembo’s part make the heist blow up in their faces.

The picture is anchored by stellar performances from Hoffman, Stanton, and Russell. It’s a sharp study on the perils of freedom for the ex-con, a meditation on our basest desire to get caught, to be unfree. Grosbard, who directed Hoffman on stage in David Mamet’s American Buffalo (and later directed the underrated True Confessions and Georgia) knows how to let the story do its work. He is more concerned with the routine of the thief than the theft itself. That said, when Dembo and Stanton rob a bank, it’s hyper-real, floundering, awkward. No trick camera shit here. It feels like eyewitness footage of an in-progress robbery (in fact, the cops were called during the filming of the bank scene).

Hoffman, in one of his grittiest and best performances, makes Max Dembo more than just an ex-con coaxed back into a life of crime. Hoffman’s Dembo is at odds with the world: a lost, damaged outsider driven to this by a society that has no room for him. Like the greatest hangdog noir protagonists, he’s a character we simultaneously sympathize with and are repelled by. Such is the case for sweet Jenny Mercer, who at first sees only the romantic side of Dembo and then is unraveled by the reality of what it means to be a crook. There’s a frightened determination in Dembo’s face after Frank has him thrown back in prison, and Hoffman bleeds every ounce of rage out of him. When Dembo snaps, after he’s tried and failed to live straight, he’s letting loose the criminal that we all have in us. Hoffman is all swagger and sharp stares in Straight Time. It’s a truly brilliant performance: tortured and intense and balls out.

What can I say about Theresa Russell? I think I might only be writing this review because I want to tell you how goddamn gorgeous Theresa Russell is in this movie. Brain-shattering, that’s what she is. The way the camera lingers on her, loves her, the way she seems so natural, so real, that’s the ’70s. She’s not puffy, not overly made up, she’s no artificial femme fatale. She’s an ordinary gorgeous stranger who gets tripped up by fate, changed by her encounter with Dembo. There’s no great lesson for Jenny Mercer. In the beginning she’s a kid and then maybe she’s not a kid anymore in the end, but that’s it. Don’t get me wrong. She’s not on screen just to be beautiful. In only her second film role (she was 20 when the film was shot), Russell is poised, assured, heartbreaking. Her character is not there solely to give us insights into Dembo’s character we wouldn’t otherwise have. She’s a complex character made up of complex motivations. What makes her so willing to accept when Dembo asks her out? Why is she drawn to an ex-con? Why is she thrilled that he’s thieving again?

I will knock out anyone who says a bad word against Harry Dean Stanton. His performance as Jerry Schue in Straight Time is evidence of what makes him such a badass. He’s thorny and fragile, tender and frightening. When he sings “Hand Me Down My Walkin’ Cane,” it’s so goddamn sad you could weep. I imagine there must’ve been some conversation about cutting the song. But it was a wise decision not to. It’s the heart of the film, in a way, Dembo and Schue sitting over lunch with their guards down. It also works in stark contrast to the versions of them we see holding up the bank. Stanton’s Schue is nightmarishly real. We think, having seen him sing, that he might be incapable of violence, but we know deep down that he’s capable of anything.

The film is filled out with great small supporting performances, too. Pre-batshit crazy Gary Busey is a perfect Willy the junkie, headshakingly airheaded. How can Dembo (Dumbo?) entrust him with driving the getaway car at the jewelry store heist? We know the answer to that in the end, but Busey pulls off the sucker with aplomb. You’ve never seen a young and pretty Kathy Bates? She’s here, let me tell you, and she makes something out of a throwaway role as Willy’s wife Selma. Her eyes are hard. She knows what Dembo can bring into Willy’s life and she wants nothing to do with it. Best of all (at least for this diehard fan) is Edward Bunker as Mickey, another one of Dembo’s old accomplices. A featurette on the making of the film also shows Bunker serving as a consultant to get the details right. Bunker’s presence is important, and he’s compelling in both the film and featurette: sad and real, sharp-eyed and casual.

Grosbard’s direction isn’t as showy as, say, Cassavetes’s in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but he’s a perfect match for Bunker’s story. The film has an improvisational quality that strips it of the artifice normally associated with heist films and portraits of criminals. No matter what Jenny thinks about Dembo, his life is never romanticized and that’s a direct product of what Grosbard decided to show and to not show. Dembo’s desperation is of an existential type that’s typical of ‘70s crime movies: a tormented character in a time of crisis struggles to survive in a violent and meaningless world. Another director might have lessened Dembo’s complexity by choosing to portray him as a victim. But here Dembo is knotty. Grosbard does not judge him. He never comments or moralizes.

Grosbard, who passed away early last year, was interviewed by Jonathan Lethem at BAM Rose Cinema in 2008 at a screening of Straight Time. He talked about how the film got made. It was shot quickly, he explained, in something like two weeks (after being held up in pre-production for ten weeks with Hoffman at the helm). Lethem made interesting points about the film’s “strangely ideal combination of external structure and improvisation.” He said: “The scenes do feel like they have that uncanny naturalism to them but the story doesn’t feel like it’s being driven by the whims of an improvisational structure.” He also praised Grosbard for his use of location, saying that Straight Time was one of the few films of the period that used Los Angeles so effectively. He made an interesting comparison to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, positing a scenario in which Dembo and Schue run into Ben Gazzara’s Cosmo Vitelli on the mean streets. Lethem, of course, was spot on and Grosbard (as evidenced in the rest of the interview) deserves a great deal of praise for shaping the film into something cohesive and whole.

But perhaps I’m not giving enough credit to Dustin Hoffman. It was Hoffman, for instance, who read No Beast So Fierce and loved it so much that he bought the rights. When he had to withdraw as director, he brought in Grosbard, his long-time friend. In his interview with Lethem, Grosbard spoke of being fortunate that Hoffman connected with the character of Max Dembo in a way that he could fully trust. That ferocious and tender connection marks the film in many ways, not just through Hoffman’s performance. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the film’s authenticity stems from his devotion to the material. Grosbard and Hoffman tangled over the cutting of the film. Hoffman wanted more authority, but Grosbard refused to let him have it. The film is no doubt stronger for Grosbard’s contribution, but Hoffman remains its driving force.

The ending of Straight Time is deeply satisfying to this viewer. If it doesn’t pay off the way you think it will, that’s because it’s not the kind of film that the world wants a crime film to be. If you’re looking for a final shoot-out or for Dembo to drive off a cliff or even be collared by the cops, you’re looking in the wrong place. We know Dembo’s destiny is to be caught, to be thrown back in prison, and that’s enough. So, what we’re left with, Dembo driving away, followed by two stills, an early mugshot and a late mugshot, is haunting. There’s a chance that things will go wrong for Dembo in his quest to be caught and that promise gives the final image a double action that lingers. Imagine if Paul Thomas Anderson had ended The Master with Freddie Quell riding away on the motorcycle in the desert. That’s what you get here in this last moment of desolate escape: Dembo embracing the awful responsibility of freedom and saying fuck it.


Bill Boyle lives in Oxford, MS. His writing has appeared in Out of the Gutter, Chiron Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Plots With Guns, Thuglit, Battling Boxing Stories, and other magazines and journals. He writes about '70s crime films at Goodbye Like A Bullet.