Straight Time (1978): Dustin Hoffman struggles to conform in unsung character masterpiece

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Dustin Hoffman is not a guy that you’d usually associate with sociopathy, be it the man himself or the characters that he plays. He’s a favourite actor of mine, and even I’ll bluntly say the man has made a career out of portraying weirdos and milquetoasts, or a combination thereof. There have been times when those characters have shown some glaring teeth, as in the case of Marathon Man and Straw Dogs, but for the most part, he’s another one of America’s many Dads, a la Tom Hanks and Morgan Freeman, mostly residing himself to the role of trusty and likeable everyman. Which is all the more reason it may be so psychologically jarring for an audience to study him in what is easily his greatest role, that of ex-convict Max Dembo.

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Max has just been released from prison after six years for an armed robbery, and he just wants to be left the fuck alone to see the city for a short while, get a shot of fast food and crash in an endearingly shitty motel. A rather infinitesimal want, you would think? Not according to Max’s wonderfully hateable parole officer, Earl Franks. In a crackingly naturalistic depiction of a villain, M. Emmett Walsh plays Franks as the consummate sadist, polite and friendly in one breath, intimidating and humiliating without a word’s notice in the next, and always with the same grinning condescension. He is an apex cinematic snapshot of a complete and utter arsehole.

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He makes it immediately clear to Max that he has a problem with his attitude, and has no compunction whatsoever about making his life more difficult than it already is. If your parole agreement says you need to check-in at the halfway house, you just do it, how cooped up you’ve been feeling in that cell is irrelevant. Max grits his teeth and swallows, taking Franks’ advice to find a job and a place of residence by the end of the week if he wants an easy relationship with him. In his search for work, Max is taken with employment agent Jenny (Theresa Russell) and invites her to dinner that evening. This meeting and the connection that follows is a world away from contrivance, both of them uncomfortable and wary for their own reasons, eventually giving way to a very strong and plaintive romance that is always subtle in its emotional power. It never feels anything but authentic, Max regaling Jenny with stories of prison life (their date scene bears similarities to the diner scene from Michael Mann’s Thief), and it is clear that she’s utterly captivated by this experienced parolee and his attempts to turn his life around.

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Max obtains a job at a canning factory, and seems intent on trying to make do with the straight and narrow, but Franks’ infinite petty tyranny, the zeal to set himself and Jenny up in a more comfortable lifestyle, and the allure of his old cronies (among whom are Gary Busey and Harry Dean Stanton in excellent bit parts) prove too much for Max to handle, and he finds himself slowly but surely falling back into the violent and unpredictable career path that he had vowed to leave behind.

At one point in the picture, a montage is shown of Max’s mugshots from his late teens to the present day, and it drives home a sad fact that continues to be swept under the carpet, that there is no real help for people like him. He isn’t a textbook case of antisocial personality disorder by any means, but he has enough sociopathic tendencies from being dragged up hard, and the utter indifference of social services, parole officers and the judicial system overall render him doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes. He knows that he’ll always get caught, but his temperament and lust for ‘easy’ money are too wild to be confined to the humdrum 9-5. People can throw accusations of bleeding-heart sentiments my way, but if you dabble in logic and empiricism, you know that merely barking ‘well don’t do it then’ just doesn’t cut any mustard.

The film is based on the novel No Beast So Fierce, by ex-career criminal turned author and actor Edward Bunker (known to most people as Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs), and Hoffman actually visited Bunker in Folsom Prison to express interest in adapting the work (This actually compelled the authorities to release Bunker early, crazily enough). As Bunker has elucidated in regards to the themes in his books, “It has always been as if I carry chaos with me the way others carry typhoid. My purpose in writing is to transcend my existence by illuminating it”, and this quote serves as a perfect encapsulation of the mentality possessed by individuals such as Max. The law is either barbaric or useless, and normal workaday folk simultaneously berate them for their choices and do everything they can to ensure that they never escape the world that they’re in. If you treat people like scum, they will act like scum, and if an honest life means tolerating constant societal disdain whilst working in a shitty, low-paying job, whose going to opt for that over a life of crime?

Equal parts message movie and neo-noir, Straight Time is a horribly underrated gem about the fight to keep all-too-powerful demons within oneself at bay, and how the efforts of people like Max are hindered by bureaucracy and apathy, as well as being a down-to-earth glimpse into the personalities and networks of people who work outside of the law for their livelihood, where people are ultimately just numbers in an altogether different way, despite contrarian insistences of keeping to your word, honour, and silence in the face of the authorities. Driven by powerhouse performances and an unforgiving script, it is not to be missed under any circumstances.

 

 

 

 

 

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