Flix Picks is a semi-regular feature that explores the depths of my Netflix queue and allows me the chance to catch up with some older films that I’ve not yet seen.
Looking back at the cinema of the 1970s, the decade helped popularize some lasting trends, most of which began with the wave of New Hollywood filmmaking a few years prior. Notably, films began placing more of a focus on outsiders and antiheroes as protagonists. Simply looking through some of the era’s most popular titles (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, A Clockwork Orange, etc.) highlights this development. So, it comes as somewhat of a surprise to me that a crime drama like Straight Time hasn’t garnered more than a mid-level of recognition in its 30+ year history.
The film follows the exploits of Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman), a newly released prisoner who attempts to “go straight” as the title suggests. He makes the best of his situation, quickly acquiring a job and a place to live. Left to his own devices, Dembo looks to be traveling down a positive path, even finding a girl who accepts his criminal past. But then life steps in the way; this time in the form of his parole officer (M. Emmett Walsh) who’s all too eager to bust Dembo for any possible parole violation. After a week of jail time over suspected drug use (a bogus claim), Dembo has had enough of the straight-laced life and returns to his old ways, beginning with some revenge on his parole officer. From there, it’s back to his prior lifestyle, reconnecting with friends and planning some heist jobs.
One of the chief strengths of the film is the element of authenticity. This could probably be attributed to its source material, which was a book written by Edward Bunker, who was himself a former criminal. In addition to the book, he co-wrote the screenplay, served as a technical advisor, and made his screen debut with a small part as one of Dembo’s connections. Most people will recognize him from his role as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs. With his experience, the film portrays life on parole in a way that’s rarely explored in movies; encapsulating the concept of recidivism among ex-cons. Given so few choices or opportunities, combined with the pressure-inducing surveillance of authorities, it comes as no surprise that Dembo reaches a breaking point. When he does relapse, he returns to what he knows best.
The actual criminal activities portrayed in the film often ratchet up the tension, but the interactions among the cons also make for some surprising moments of humor, though not through typical gags. Dembo has trouble finding reliable partners for his crimes, leading to some Bottle Rocket-like moments – only much darker. To invoke another film, there are times when a situation provokes the kind of nervous laughter you might find in Goodfellas, followed by some extreme violence if something doesn’t go according to plan. By the end, however, everything unravels to the point that aggression takes over and bloodshed occurs.
Hoffman turns in one of his best performances as Dembo. Even though his character remains fairly restrained during the opening portion of the film, Hoffman clearly communicates a restlessness and frustration that’s just beneath the surface. Once Dembo turns to crime again, the obsession and intensity in his eyes become haunting. The rest of the cast perform admirably as well, providing the film with many noteworthy moments. A young Kathy Bates turns up in a small role as a housewife of one of Dembo’s old friends. She doesn’t want Dembo hanging around her husband and tells him so in a scene filled with cautious politeness. Harry Dean Stanton also makes an appearance as one of Dembo’s former accomplices who can’t wait to return to robberies after seemingly being bored to death by the malaise of suburbia.
One issue some viewers might encounter concerns the love interest aspect of the film. As played by Theresa Russell, you could make a case that the woman who falls for Dembo is out of his league and there’s little motivation for her to stay with him. And while that may be true to some degree, I read her as someone who’s attracted to “bad boy” types and desires some excitement in her life. The part may fall on the conventional side, but it still worked for me.
Straight Time strikes a strong balance between character study and crime drama, whereby we get the best of both worlds. Enough time is spent with Dembo to attain some insight into the character, but there are also more than enough genre conventions to satisfy fans. The film was a real passion project for Hoffman (he even intended to direct) and his work certainly illustrates that. Though he doesn’t play an appealing character, there’s a fascination as to what makes him tick. To me, he fits right alongside the likes of Travis Bickle. Now, if he were only half as well-known among movie viewers…
Straight Time is available on Netflix Watch Instantly now.