Straight Time follows a newly released prisoner as he attempts to re-enter society after serving a six-year sentence for armed robbery. The film deals with his sincere efforts to follow the many rules imposed on him by the system and especially his parole officer.
After a long stint at San Quentin, Max Denbo (Dustin Hoffman) tries to get a job in Los Angeles and go straight. His parole officer, Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh), appearing affable, is not only tough but alternately dismissive and sadistic, subjecting Denbo to a series of humiliations and stymying his efforts to stay on a straight path. In addition, Denbo’s old friends are a collection of thieves, junkies, and low-level gangsters, and are hardly good influences on him.
Though Denbo makes an effort, it soon becomes apparent that his irritability, impatience, and self-destructive impulses will lead him back to what he knows best—a life of immediate gratification through crime. The best thing he has going for him is a new relationship with young secretary Jenny Mercer (Theresa Russell), who sticks around even after she learns about his past. Meanwhile, his friendships with two other cons, Jerry (Harry Dean Stanton) and Willy (Gary Busey), are like magnets, drawing him back to a life of crime.
Denbo remains a sympathetic character, particularly when we see how he’s mistreated by the parole officer and endures the abuse to remain free. His job in a canning factory is a dull, back-breaking daily routine amid the constant loud noise of machinery. That all changes, however, when he returns to crime because it’s what he does best and offers him, to his mind, true freedom.
Based on the novel No Beast So Fierce, written by Edward Bunker while a prisoner in San Quentin, Straight Time includes a number of scenes involving heists which look authentic, from the loud orders shouted to terrified employees and customers, to the hammer, rubber gloves, and satchel brought to a jewelry store robbery to smash showcases and shovel in as many valuable jewels as possible before the police arrive. The film is an interesting character study of a career criminal recidivist, but never successfully explains why an attractive young woman would fall for an older ex-con. Could it be that director Ulu Grosbard wanted to plunk in a romantic sub-plot to humanize Denbo? Perhaps, but the scenes with Jenny aren’t convincing.
Hoffman is in almost every scene and shows a range of emotion. When he blows up in a violent rage as parole officer Frank is driving him to his job, we are shocked by the violence, since we have seen him straining to remain self-controlled early on. But Frank’s constant degradations have finally made Denbo snap, and we see his capacity for brutality. His payback humiliation of Frank makes for one of the film’s most memorable scenes.
Stanton and Busey are effective as the reliable and unreliable pals, respectively, who join up with Denbo as he returns to planning big-time robberies. Kathy Bates appears in a small role as Willy’s wife.
Straight Time was shot by director of photography Owen Roizman on 35 mm using Panavision Panaflex cameras and spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The color palette is muted, and there are few bold primary colors. Black levels are deep and details can be seen even in deep shadows. The grain level allows for a good sense of depth. Clarity and contrast are very good, and details, such as jewelry, clutter in parole officer Frank’s office, modest furnishings in Denbo’s rented room, and machinery in the canning factory are well delineated. Complexions vary. Denbo’s is ruddy, with a dark mustache, Russell’s is creamy and smooth with little apparent make-up, and Walsh’s is smooth and clean shaven, his head topped with thinning hair. Stubble, wrinkles, pores, and sweat are sharp. Photography is nearly all from an objective point of view. Tracking shots follow Denbo on his first day out of prison as he wanders, savoring being a free man.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is distinct and clear throughout, though Hoffman occasionally speaks under his breath. Sound effects of shattering glass, robbers’ shouts, two critical gun shots, police sirens, and alarms add excitement. David Shire’s jazz-infused score is at its best enhancing action scenes during the robberies and nicely sets the mood as it plays under the opening credits.
Bonus materials include the following:
The back of the Blu-ray case indicates that there is also the vintage featurette Straight Time: He Wrote It for Criminals, but it doesn’t appear on the disc.
In the commentary, director Ulu Grosbard defines the term “straight time” as a criminal who does his complete time in prison and comes out a free man. He didn’t like the book’s title because it sounded like a horror film. Straight Time tested well and became the film’s title. Hoffman discusses how he researched the role, including spending a full day in prison to experience what an incarcerated individual’s routine feels like. The author of the novel, Edward Bunker, grew up in the system and wrote the book while in San Quentin. Grosbard filmed the first scene with M. Emmet Walsh about 35 times so that Walsh was able to convey the parole officer’s slyness, notion of fairness, and absolute authority. Hoffman developed an immediate bond with actress Theresa Russell. Grosbard gives credit to his director of photography and production designer, who were able to improve on the real thing. There were several versions of the script but Grosbard went back to the original Alvin Sargent draft because it has a clear storyline. At 180 pages, the draft was too long and was cut to a more manageable length. Grosbard was on a tight schedule and was always rushing. Hoffman notes that he was taking drugs at the time and was edgy during filming. At one point, he was so exhausted, he couldn’t move and was off the film for a full week of rest. Hoffman concludes his comments by stating that he’s very proud of the film.
Straight Time is a powerful film, thanks mainly to the intense, well-modulated performance of Dustin Hoffman. It shows the frustrations and anger of being labeled an ex-con and explores the roots of Denbo’s criminal urges. Director Ulu Grosbard never glamorizes crime, presenting a criminal underworld that is alternately frightening, amusing and tragic, but always unglamorous and authentic.
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