After serving a six-year sentence for armed robbery, Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) is released from prison without much to his name. Leaving the penitentiary gates behind him, he walks out with other former inmates who are greeted by their families in their cozy station wagons, welcoming them back to their lives. Max is alone, hopping on a bus to the city where options are scarce. As he puts it, “I just want a decent job, somebody to love me. Clothes on my back. Some self-respect.” But those things can be tough to come by when you’re walking back out into a world where the systems turn against you the moment you’re pinched for the first time, which happened for Max when he was just 12. He’s been in and out of prison ever since.
Directed by Ulu Grosbard, Straight Time is based on the novel No Beast So Fierce, which was written by Edward Bunker while he was in prison. Grosbard was taken with the novel and gave it to his friend and collaborator Hoffman (the two had previously worked together on Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?) and it became a pet project for the actor. Originally slating himself to direct the picture, Hoffman abandoned the position quickly into shooting. In the commentary on Straight Time’s physical release, the actor expresses regret for bowing out as director, stating that he didn’t have the courage for it at the time and kept distrusting his instincts.
This was when he called up his pal Grosbard to step into those director’s shoes, and after a little tinkering with the script—aided by Bunker, Alvin Sargent and Jeffrey Boam, ditching contributions previously made by Michael Mann and Nancy Dowd—they were off to the races. Hoffman gave his performance total priority with the decision, with his efforts speaking to his characteristic commitment to detail and authenticity he had already become known for.
The actor spent two years visiting prisons, including the L.A. County Jail and San Quentin, spending a day locked up in the latter to try to feel what it was like on the inside. “I remember more about doing that character and that performance than maybe any other film I’ve ever done,” he says. His first priority, higher than financial success (which escaped the film), was for cons and ex-cons to see the film and think “that’s it, that’s our reality.” Bunker served as an advisor on the picture, on set every day to guide Hoffman’s performance as well as the writing and directing, where he’d be able to dismiss inaccuracies.
Straight Time doesn’t spend much time behind jailhouse walls, but it was important for Hoffman to understand the psychology of an inmate in order to capture the mental state of someone trying to assimilate back into the world. Upon his insertion back into the outside, he immediately ditches his orders to report to a halfway house, something which he’s chastised for by his parole officer Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh) the next morning in his office. Dembo explains that he wanted to see the lights and not be told when to go to bed immediately after getting out of prison. When Frank accuses him of having an “attitude problem,” Dembo responds, “Can you tell me what kind of attitude you want me to have?” This is a man trying to toe the line to keep himself on the right side of authorities, but the lines have boxed him into an unreasonable position that in some ways is even more difficult to manage than being inside the joint.
Looking for a job, Dembo heads to a temp agency where he meets employee Jenny Mercer (Theresa Russell), who helps him find a position working for a can company cleaning trash in their factory. Dembo explains his situation to her, detailing how he can’t handle money and he can’t even drive a car without permission. He’s given such harsh limitations on what he’s able to do, yet he’s required to get a job and a place to live if he wants to achieve even a modicum of freedom and normalcy—if he doesn’t want to be under the thumb of the “justice system” ad infinitem.
Yet under their thumb he remains. Things go south for Dembo after catching up with old friend Willy Darin (Gary Busey), a former cohort who has seemingly gone straight and is settled down with a wife (Kathy Bates) and kid (Busey’s son Jake, in his first screen appearance). Visiting their home, Dembo sits at the table with this quaint family and you can watch in his sunken eyes how he reflects on the life he doesn’t have—and might never have. He wants this cozy little existence, but even his presence is a threat to their livelihood, as Darin’s wife privately asks Dembo not to visit their home anymore, because Darin doesn’t need any bad influences.
The irony is that Darin ends up being a bit of a bad influence for Dembo. Darin shoots up in Dembo’s new place and the remnants of his drug use are discovered on an unannounced visit by Frank, who sends Dembo straight back to the clink. He’s left there for days, waiting to be released upon the evidence that he doesn’t have any drugs in his system, but he’s clearly on thin ice with Frank. The parole officer attempts to get Dembo to rat on his friend, and it’s here where Dembo fully snaps, forcing Frank’s car off the road, kicking him out on the side of the highway and handcuffing him to a fence with his pants down. Dembo steals Frank’s car and heads back into his life of crime.
Dembo retreats back into his old ways, accepting there’s no real opportunity out there to go straight once you’ve been branded a criminal. Reflecting on his many conversations with Bunker to understand the psychology of an ex-con, Hoffman details in the commentary how prisons aren’t designed for rehabilitation. “Penitentiaries aren’t for being penitent,” he says. You come out of those walls much more of a danger to yourself and to society than you were when you went in. An example he gives is if someone who hasn’t been to prison has their foot stepped on by a stranger, they might not say anything, or just respond with a “Hey man, watch where you’re going.” But if the same thing happens to an ex-con, the response could be a lot more serious and more dangerous.
Hoffman says this role came at a very difficult time in his life and he wasn’t easy to work with—that he was going through a separation from his first wife that would lead to divorce, he was experimenting with drugs and only sleeping a few hours a night. There’s a hair-trigger quality to his performance that ratchets up the more time Dembo spends trying to acclimate to a society that wasn’t designed to accommodate him, and you can feel that tension rising within him. His time spent with Bunker and other ex-cons aids him in bringing us effectively into the headspace of someone adjusting to life on the outside, as Hoffman’s performance is often understated where other actors would go big. It’s a remarkably grounded portrayal which feels like a shift after a decade of excellent performances that were more in the realm of nervy, enigmatic, capital-C characters. Here he’s just this guy, an ordinary man trying to make it.
One small, but exquisite, example is a moment where Dembo is crossing the street and a car comes flying by, almost killing him. He has to jump out of the way to avoid getting knocked out of his shoes and left bloodied on the side of the road. Dembo gives the automobile a nasty look, but he remains silent. It’s a stark difference from the familiar Ratso Rizzo response in Midnight Cowboy: “I’m walkin’ here!” A lifetime of being in and out of prison has trained Hoffman’s Dembo to keep to himself, to be quiet and polite in order to get by without causing a stir and making things worse for himself.
The authenticity strived for in every facet of Straight Time extends to the robberies we see, which are never the smooth operations of ace criminals we see in something like Heat or Ocean’s Eleven. These are down and dirty smash-and-grab jobs, where you can feel the anxious sweat pouring off Dembo’s hands and the fear in their voices as he and not-so-reformed thief Jerry Schue (an immaculate Harry Dean Stanton) shout at one another in the midst of their minutes-long heist schemes. Dembo keeps pushing the line, grabbing as much as he can well past when Schue says they need to get gone.
In some ways, you begin to question if he’s just testing how far he can go before he gets caught again. That maybe he wants to get caught again and head back into the system. In Bunker’s novel, we get a deeper glimpse into Dembo’s life behind bars before he is released. He was thriving. He had a boyfriend and was running things on the inside, making it an even more dramatic shift once he’s forced back into the world and can’t figure things out. In prison, he’s given a routine and has basic needs provided for him, while on the outside he can’t even get a decent job or hang out with his friends without scrutiny.
The systemic cycle of being branded a convict prevents Dembo from holding onto a semblance of normalcy in his life, and his return to criminal proclivities threatens his blossoming relationship with Mercer. The two have a darling romance emerging, with Grosbard describing how it was important to establish this as a genuine connection between the two and that it wasn’t “just about screwing.” You can feel that bond in their scenes, the few moments where the film settles down and Dembo becomes grounded in this person who accepts and loves him. He’s able to find momentary peace resting his head on her chest. Sadly, both know there’s a ticking clock on their time together. He wants to run away with her and live a happy life, but he’s been marked as no good by a system with an iron fist, and he heads off without her, knowing that eventually he’ll be caught again. He’s always serving time, whether he’s on the inside or out.
Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.