Straight Time (1978) Ulu Grosbard

Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) is a small time nobody of a criminal who has been in and out of jail his entire life. Most recently, he has just been released from San Quentin after a six year stretch for armed robbery. He’s trying to do some straight time now that he out of jail but the odds, the system, and as becomes most obvious, he himself are all against him. 

The parole officer assigned to Max, Earl Frank (M. Emmett Walsh), is a patronizing low-life, playing mind games continually attempting to bait Max; almost daring him to do something that will land him back in prison. At first, all Max wants is a place to live, a job and a girl. But Max is his own worst enemy. He’s a born liar and a career crook. He even lies about small things for no other reason than it’s just the natural thing for him to do; not admitting the truth no matter how unimportant. 

Max’s attempt at a straight life is short lived. He gets an honest job at a canning factory, he met a girl, Jenny (Theresa Russell) at the employment agency but he still hooks up with an old friend one night, Willy Darin (Gary Busey), an ex-con who one day ends up cooking up some coke in Max’s dumpy apartment. When Earl Frank unexpectedly stops by a day or so later, he finds burned out matches on the floor of Max’s apartment. This is enough for Earl to come down on Max and lock him up in the County jail to have him tested for drug use. After he is found to be clean, Earl gets him released, but for Max, he is about to turn a corner from which he will never return.

Earl drives Max to a halfway house, but the destination is never reached. Max escapes from Earl clutches, leaving the parole officer handcuffed to a chain fence in the middle of the freeway with his pants pulled down to his ankles. The sight needless to say is hysterical but for Max, he has now crossed the line, stepped back into his old ways and he will only get in deeper. A series of small robberies escalate to a jewelry store heist, murder and a life gone out of control.  

We never find out what makes Max tick. He just is who he seems to be on the surface, a career criminal always trying to beat the system just because it’s there. Dustin Hoffman gives a superb performance as Max, a seedy, sweaty, uncompromising loser, adding more depth to the character than he probably deserves. Hoffman is supported by a fine cast, none of who hit a false note, M. Emmett Walsh as the patronizing parole officer, Harry Dean Stanton and Gary Busey as two of Max’s old friends and not so smart fellow criminals. There is also a young Kathy Bates in a small role as Busey’s wife, honest and strong enough to tell Max to stay away from her husband, because he’s a bad influence. Also, in a small role is Sandy Baron as a club owner who gives Max a pistol to use in his first post prison robbery. Finally, there is Theresa Russell, as Jenny, the employment worker who helps Max get a job and begins to have an affair with him. Russell, an excellent actress, is good but her role is the one note that does not ring true in this film. Her character’s devotion to Max is hard to figure. From the way she acts and dresses, you get the impression, this is a girl who can have just about any guy she would want, why she settles for even the first innocent date with Max is baffling, other than to say she felt some sort of pity for him.

“Straight Time” is a grim film filled with bleak humor, the unpleasantness of post prison life, the technicalities of parole, the fight to stay straight and a unresolved but almost certain doomed ending. Max leaves Jenny behind in the end because he knows that he will probably be caught and killed. The final images of the film are three police mug shots of Max starting with the most recent and working their way back to his first arrest as a teenager.

The film was written by Alvin Sargent, Edward Bunker and Jeffrey Boam, based on the novel, “No Beast So Fierce” by Bunker, a real life ex-convict. He wrote the novel while in prison which was published in 1973.  Dustin Hoffman purchased the screen rights and planned to make his screen directing debut with this film. After a short period of directing, Hoffman found the double functions of acting and directing too much and relinquished the director’s role to his friend Ulu Grosbard who he previously worked with on “Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?” A legal battle ensued between Hoffman and the studio (First Artists) over rights of final cut when First Artists eventually took control of the film denying Hoffman his claim that he had contractual rights to final cut. (1)

Author and co-screenwriter, Edward Bunker also has a small cameo role in the film. He would go on to write more novels and continued to work in film as an actor in small roles. “Straight Time” opened to mix reviews, The New York Times critic Vincent Canby liked it while Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin and Time magazine critic Frank Rich found it wanting. The studio, First Artists, quickly lost faith in the film’s financial potential and it undeservedly died a fairly quick death at the box office.


(1) Dustin Hoffman (Hollywood’s Antihero) – Jeff Lenberg

5 comments on “Straight Time (1978) Ulu Grosbard

  1. John, excellent write-up on a film that I love very much. I am fond of this sentence as I think it aptly sums up the film and begins to describe some of what makes the film so special.

    “Straight Time” is a grim film filled with bleak humor, the unpleasantness of post prison life, the technicalities of parole, the fight to stay straight and a unresolved but almost certain doomed ending.”

    It’s this bleakness and ambiguity, combined with a sort of A-level treatment, that make STRAIGHT TIME such an anomaly in the environment of today’s American cinema.


    • John Greco says:

      Hey Jeffrey, thanks very much, I ‘m glad you are an admirer of this film. I love films that leave a question mark as to what happens. We do not know whether Max, on the run, ever gets away or not. As you mention in your last sentence, it’s the bleakness and ambiguity that make this film.


  2. Rick29 says:

    John, what I like about STRAIGHT TIME is its straightforward presentation of the main character. As you wrote, we don’t know what makes Max tick. What you see is what you get and he’s on a downward spiral from the first frame of the film. It’s the fact that he never stands a chance to go straight is what gives the film its potency.


    • John Greco says:

      Rick, – Yeah, the film presents it that he has three strikes against him from the very start and his two biggest enemies are the system and himself.


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