Cast & Crew
Max Dembo is out on parole and forced to endure the abuse of his sadistic parole officer Earl Frank. The harder Max tries to go straight, the more he is harassed by Frank. Finally, Max decides that he and his fellow ex-convicts are never going to be able to find honest work and he goes back into stealing with another "reformed" criminal, Jerry Schue. But their plan goes badly, largely due to Max's personal flaws.
Kit Jee Wong
M. Emmet Walsh
Betty Jane Howarth
Ronald L Mellinger
Harry Dean Stanton
Richard J Lawrence
James E Webb
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
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
Edward Bunker (1933-2005)
He was born on December 31, 1933 in Hollywood, California to a mother who was a chorus girl in a few Busby Berkely musicals, and a father who was a studio grip; two of the lesser positions in the Hollywood hierarchy. After his parents divorced when he was four, he spent the next several years in various foster homes and juvenile reform schools. By 14, he notched his first criminal conviction for burglery; at 17, he stabbed a youth prison guard; and by 19, he was considered so violent a felon, that he became the youngest inmate ever at San Quentin.
For the next 20 years, Bunker would be in and out of prison for numerous felonies: robbery, battery, and check forgery, just to name a few. While in prison, he read the novel of another San Quentin inmate, Caryl Chessman, whose book, Cell 2455, Death Row, was a reveleation to Bunker, so he set about devoting himself to writing.
He enrolled in a correspondence course in freshman English from the University of California, and after several years of unpublished novels, he struck gold in 1973 with No Beast So Fierce. The novel, about a paroled thief whose attempt to reenter mainstream society fails, was as tough and unforgiving as anything ever written about a parolee's readjustment to the outside, and it rightfully earned Bunker acclaim as a writer to watch.
After he was released from prison in 1975, Bunker concentrated on writing and acting. His big film break happened when No Beast So Fierce was turned into the movie Straight Time (1978) starring Dustin Hoffman. He co-wrote the screenplay, and also had a small part as one of Hoffman's cronies.
Bunker's next big hit as a screenwriter and actor was Runaway Train (1985), a pulsating drama about two escaped convicts (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts) where again, he had a small role as Jonah. It was obvious by now that Bunker, with his gruff voice, unnerving gaze, broken nose, and his signature feature - a scar from a knife wound that ran from his forehead to his lip - would make a most enigmatic movie villian.
A few more roles in prominent pictures followed: The Running Man, Shy People (both 1987), Tango & Cash (1989), before he scored the best role of his career, Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino's celebrated cult caper Reservoir Dogs (1992). It couldn't have been easy for Bunker to hold his own in a cast of heavyweights (Harvey Keitel, Lawrence Tierney, Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi), but he did - and with a muscularly lithe style that was all his own.
After Reservoir Dogs, Bunker was in demand as a villian. His next few films: Distant Cousins (1993), Somebody to Love (1994), were routine, but he proved that he could deliver with professional, if familiar performances. Actor Steve Buscemi helped Bunker get his novel Animal Factory to the screen in 2000, with Bunker again adapting his own work for film. He was last seen as a convict, although with sharp comedic overtones, in the recent Adam Sandler farce The Longest Yard (2005). He is survived by his son, Brendan.
by Michael "Mitch" Toole
Edward Bunker (1933-2005)
wrote the novel on which Straight Time is based after spending time in prison for armed robbery.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1978
Released in United States 1998
Shown at Vancouver International Film Festival September 26 - October 12, 1998.
Feature acting debut for Jake Busey, son of veteran actor and Academy Award nominee Gary Busey.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1978
Released in United States 1998 (Shown at Vancouver International Film Festival September 26 - October 12, 1998.)