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Straight Time

Straight Time(1978)

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teaser Straight Time (1978)

Based on a novel written by a veteran thief and longtime convict, Straight Time (1978) is a drama that draws from the raw material of real-life crime and the mindset of criminals. Dustin Hoffman stars as Max Dembo, who is released from prison in the opening scene. He has every intention of turning his back on his past, getting a job and a maybe girlfriend and leading a straight civilian life, but first he has to navigate life on parole, which becomes a dehumanizing experience. After keeping his temper in check through a series of humiliations, he explodes and returns to his criminal life. There are no cool-headed masterminds here, no capers timed to the split second, just thieves who jump into robberies with half-formed plans and ride the adrenaline charge until they are caught.

Author Edward Bunker was a career criminal before he turned to writing. Born during the depression, he spent his childhood in foster homes and reform school and was the youngest convict ever incarcerated in San Quentin at age 17. He started writing as a way to channel his impulses and aggression onto the page. "I felt I had something to say, that I could salvage something out of the misery of my existence by writing," he explained in a 1978 documentary. He drew from his life and criminal career for "No Beast So Fierce," which was published in 1973. It was his sixth novel but the first to be published.

Dustin Hoffman read the novel while it was still in galleys and was so taken with the portrait of criminal life that he optioned it. He met Bunker (who was already back in prison for his role in a bank robbery) and spent months working with him on the script and learning the reality of prison life and criminal culture. Bunker's work with Hoffman helped get him an early release and he was subsequently hired as a technical advisor on the film and given a small screen role (he's a criminal contact who hangs out in a bar and tips Max to a potential robbery), and he received credit for his work on the screenplay alongside longtime professional screenwriters Alvin Sargent and Jeffrey Boam. It became Bunker's first legitimate civilian employment in years and it launched a new career as both a writer (he worked on the screenplays of Runaway Train and Animal Factory, adapted from his own novel) and an actor (most famously as Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs).

Straight Time was to be Hoffman's directorial debut but after four days of trying to act, direct, and juggle the complexities of the production, he changed his mind. "I saw the rushes and felt disgruntled and fearful and I said, I'm firing myself," he explained in his DVD commentary. He reached out Ulu Grosbard, an old friend and collaborator, to take over while Hoffman concentrated on her performance. A Tony-nominated Broadway director as well as a filmmaker, Grosbard had directed Hoffman in the film Who is Harry Keller and Why Is He Saying These Terrible Things About Me? (1971) and had a reputation as a fine director of actors. Hoffman had begun shooting without a finalized screenplay so he and Hoffman improvised scenes in advance of shooting. "We were making it up as we went along, even though we had sort of a structure from Alvin's draft," remarked Grosbard in his DVD commentary. "It was really Cassavetes time." Bunker and John Carlen, a former bank robber, were on the set as advisors during the robbery scenes, which Hoffman was determined to get right.

Hoffman had cast the picture long before Grosbard took over and, along with the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton and rising star Gary Busey (whose earned an Oscar nomination for his very next role in The Buddy Holly Story), he filled it with some new faces destined to go on to significant careers. Theresa Russell took her first starring role as Jenny, the employment counselor who becomes Max's girlfriend, and Kathy Bates got one of her very first screen credits as the wife of the ex-con played by Busey. And playing Busey's energetic, tow-headed boy was Busey's real life son Jacob, who grew up to become Jake Busey of Starship Troopers (1997) fame.

Hoffman was disappointed in the finished film--he fought with Grosbard over the direction and felt cheated by the production company First Artists, which shut production down after it went over schedule and over budget and took final cut away from Hoffman--but still considers it one of his finest performances. It was a commercial disappointment (Hoffman accused the studio of dumping the film rather than nurturing it) but critics praised both the film and his intense, focused performance. New York Times film critic Vincent Canby described it as "an uncommonly interesting film about a fellow whose significance is entirely negative" and "so cool it would leave a chill were it not done with such precision and control..." It holds up decades later as both a sharp, volatile character study and a clear-eyed portrait of criminal life.

By Sean Axmaker

Sources:
The Films of Dustin Hoffman, Douglas Brode. Citadel Press, 1983.
Straight Time: He Wrote It For Criminals, documentary directed by Marino Colmano. Imagenation, 1978.
"Edward Bunker remembers his first sentence. he wrote from the heart. And from experience: 'Two boys went to rob a liquor store,'" Robert Dellinger. Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2000.
Audio commentary on Straight Time, Ulu Grosbard and Dustin Hoffman. Warner Home Video, 2007.
"Straight Time a Film of Grim Wit," Vincent Canby. The New York Times, March 18, 1978.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films

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