Emerging from Folsom State Prison after six years, Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) returns to Los Angeles. He spends his first night of freedom eating a hot dog and wandering the city streets. Checking in the next day with his parole officer, Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh), Max is verbally reprimanded for failing to show up at the halfway house and for exhibiting what the parole officer considers an attitude: “My friend, I see you’re going to force me to deal with you.” With juvenile offenses dating back to when he was 12 – including auto theft and burglary – Max pledges that he’s no menace to society and just wants to be like everybody else. Earl allows Max to skip the halfway house if he finds work and a place to stay in a week.
An interview with a young career placement clerk named Jenny (Theresa Russell) not only gets Max a job at a can company, but a dinner date as well. A visit to his buddy Willy (Gary Busey) gives Max a glimpse of the family life he’s been dreaming of, but Willy’s wife (Kathy Bates) tells Max she doesn’t feel it’s a good idea for him to be around her husband. When Earl drops by Max’s apartment for a surprise visit, the parole officer finds matches Willy left on the floor while he was shooting up. He violates Max back to jail. The ex-con is eventually released, but on the ride home, Earl keeps at him about whose matches those were. Reaching the end of his rope, Max attacks the p.o. and leaves him handcuffed in the middle of the freeway with his pants yanked down.
Max seeks out another friend, Jerry Schue (Harry Dean Stanton), a heist man settled down with a wife in the suburbs. Jerry misses the adrenaline rush of scores and it doesn’t take long for the pair to fall back into old habits. They first attempt to stick up a high stakes poker game in the Valley, but when a third accomplice fails to show up in time with a shotgun, Max drives his fist into the man’s jaw. A bank robbery is successful, but Max demonstrates an alarming tendency to take too long getting himself out the door. He comes clean with Jenny about what he does and what he is, and she seems to accept it: “I’ll stay with you as long as I can handle it, but when I can’t, I’m gonna go.” She even comes along as Max cases the inside of a jewelry store.
In 1951, Eddie Bunker became the youngest man “elected” to San Quentin State Prison. A ward of the state from the time he was 4 years old, Bunker was 17 when handed a four-year sentence for delivering hash and escaping L.A. County Jail. He was ultimately inspired by Caryl Chessman, whose bestselling autobiography was written on death row. Incarcerated at the federal correctional institution on Terminal Island in 1975, Bunker recalled at the time, “I wanted to be a writer and they told me – I was in the state prisons then – they told me that was unrealistic and I should learn to be a plumber or a carpenter or something like that, but I’m pretty stubborn. And I felt I had something to say, that I could salvage something out of my existence, out of the misery of my existence, by writing. Out of mud grows the lotus, or something.”
Bunker was serving time in Marion, Illinois for attempted bank robbery in 1973 when the sixth novel he’d attempted – No Beast So Fierce – was published to wide acclaim. Director Ulu Grosbard felt the book had a gritty, genuine feel and gave it to his friend Dustin Hoffman. The actor had recently joined Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Barbara Streisand and Sidney Poitier in a production shingle called First Artists. Warner Bros. had committed to greenlight any project the stars were interested in, provided they work for scale, and kept their budgets below $3 million. In return, they could do anything they wanted. Hoffman wanted to direct. Optioning the book, the actor spent two years researching Max Dembo, going to prisons, hanging out with ex-cons, and talking at length with Bunker.
Hoffman recalled, “And the more I hung out with Eddie Bunker on a daily basis, it was like watching a documentary every day in terms of the firsthand information I got. And certainly I started from Eddie Bunker because many times during the script writings and everything Eddie would just shake his head and say, ‘Naw, man. That’s bullshit.’ And I’d say, ‘Well tell me the way it was.’” With an actor friend named Stanley Beck serving as producer, Hoffman commissioned several screenplays. Alvin Sargent worked with Bunker on a draft in the waiting room at Terminal Island. Michael Mann wrote sixty pages under Hoffman’s supervision, but it ended up being unusable. Many months spent rewriting the script and assembling a cast and crew ended with the studio pressing Hoffman to start shooting.
Hoffman’s directing career began and ended outside Folsom State Prison, where he was hampered by uncooperative weather, as well as chronic indecision. Without the advent of video playback, the actor had to rely on the advice of cinematographer Owen Roizman and editor Sam O’Steen, who often contradicted each other over whether a take was good. “Anyway, so I saw the rushes and felt disgruntled and fearful and I said, ‘I’m firing myself.’ ‘Cause I couldn’t perceive going through that experience, asking two different people after takes, ‘How was it? How was it?’” Hoffman turned to Ulu Grosbard for help. Grosbard had worked with the actor off-Broadway, and directed him in Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?
Grosbard recalled, “When Dustin called me, I said, ‘Okay, let me go out and take a look at what’s going on.’ He was a good friend, he was in very serious trouble and because I’d liked the story I thought, let me check it out. When I looked at the script, I did not see any kind of a storyline that had any appeal to me. So I said, ‘I don’t know. One of the options is to cut bait and take the loss.’ And then I had an afterthought and I said … ‘Let me go back and read Alvin’s draft.’ And I went back and read Alvin’s draft. It was a 180 page draft, but I saw a movie in it. I mean, there was a storyline in it, it was clear to me, and suddenly it was something I felt would really interest me. ‘Cause I saw a possibility of telling a story of someone – a criminal – who just simply throws his life away.”
Alvin Sargent was by this time six months behind schedule writing Ordinary People for Robert Redford, but over three days, whittled his epic draft down to 120 pages. Grosbard brought in Jeffrey Boam to polish it, but as he commenced shooting March 1977, still had no script. “The problem of course is when you do that kind of thing – cutting out characters – and you leave a lot of gaps. And that is something we had to address in the middle of shooting literally day by day and it is something where Dustin was extremely helpful. I mean, he’d gotten into the character in a really remarkable way and what we ended up doing is very often improvise the scene the night before – the actors – the scene we were going to shoot the next day. It would be recorded, it would be typed up, and then the next morning we’d go on location and rehearse the scene and shoot.”
Arriving on the title Straight Time, Grosard wrapped filming in September. His first disagreement with Hoffman occurred outside the editing room, where Grosbard was working on an assembly and let it be known that the actor’s input was not welcome. Hoffman took four weeks of work on the film Agatha, which as soon as Hoffman came on board in a supporting role, underwent massive rewrites for the star and turned into a twelve-week commitment. Expecting Warner Bros. to honor its commitment to First Artists and allow him to deliver a final cut of Straight Time, Hoffman learned the studio intended to dump the film into theaters. He filed a breach of contract lawsuit and demanded $66 million in damages, publicly disowning the film in the process.
Opening March 1978 without an advance press screening, Gene Siskel would rank Straight Time #1 on his list of the year’s 10 best films. Other critics were not as appreciative. Charles Champlin wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Hoffman’s Max has less dimension than some of his earlier characterizations.” Writing for Time Magazine, Frank Rich added: “Hoffman works hard and well to create a man who lives in a state of constant punishment. It’s an admirable job, but one sadly wasted in a film that punishes the audience as much as it does the people on screen.” The film grossed $4 million in the U.S. and while ignored at the box office, became an influence among some filmmakers. Quentin Tarantino studied it at the Sundance Film lab, and cast Bunker as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs. Michael Mann was so inspired by Bunker’s fiction that Jon Voight’s character in Heat was modeled after the writer.
Recording an audio commentary for the film’s release on DVD in 2007, Grosbard recalled, “I love the underbelly of Los Angeles, and this movie dealt with the underbelly of Los Angeles. I mean, it’s a Los Angeles that isn’t Bel Air or, you know, Beverly Hills, it is the real Los Angeles so to speak, and it’s everywhere, God knows. Dustin had to hire a production designer named Stephen Grimes, who had a wonderful track record – he’d worked for John Huston – he’s a wonderful man, but he’s an Englishman. And when I came in I thought to myself, ‘What an odd choice, and how is this guy going to handle this, I mean, what does he know about Los Angeles? Less than I do.’ As it turned out, he was brilliant … and had a genuine sense for the grittiness of what I was looking for, and so of course was Owen Roizman, who was absolutely terrific.”
The latest generation of Los Angeles crime sagas – Reservoir Dogs, Heat, L.A. Confidential – embrace stark dialogue and some of the finest visual gloss that money can buy. Straight Time has neither of those, but is the bedrock those modern classics were built on. More vividly than any movie made before or since, Eddie Bunker’s source material takes us through the life and times of a criminal as he suffers the humiliation of parole, the difficulties of holding down honest work, the temptations, and the inevitable slide back into old habits. The great thing about the film is that it never asks us to feel sorry for Max Dembo, revealing him to be a creature of instinct, but poor instinct, resigned to getting caught and sent back to the only place he knows how to function.
To watch Hoffman work with M. Emmet Walsh, Hoffman with Gary Busey, Hoffman with a young Kathy Bates, as well as Theresa Russell is to watch an All-Star caliber lineup of the finest character actors of the late 1970s. Russell in particular brings serenity to what might have otherwise been the thankless role of girlfriend. Another graceful note here is Ulu Grosbard’s decision not to come on strong with the style, to hold the camera back and simply permit scenes to unfold in master shots as if we were there. The film ends on a note that’s as honest as it is technically proficient, anchoring Straight Time in the vanguard of great ‘70s films. David Shire composed the snappy urban score.
Gary Couzens at DVD Times writes, “Straight Time is very much a Seventies picture: a low-key slightly grainy look, with a character-led storyline, an anti-heroic lead character, taking advantage of contemporary licence for strong language. (It’s not graphically violent.) It’s certainly of interest for quite a few reasons, and does have something of a cult following, though an undersung masterpiece it isn’t.”
Adnan Tezer at Monsters and Critics writes, “Straight Time, after nearly 30 years, has lost none of its impact and still remains the most authentic, realistic portrayal of a criminal ever put on screen. It ranks along side the best of the less popular/heralded 70s films that portrayed working class people or people outside the boundaries of contemporary society (i.e. criminals) in a gritty, raw and uncompromising way that had never been seen before or since including Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves and Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow.”