January 2, 2014
Straight Time – U.S., 1978
My high school acting teacher, Lewis Campbell, used to rave about the way Dustin Hoffman played the opening scene in The Graduate. To him, Hoffman’s decision to play the scene looking forward, as if his character were determined to leave the past behind him, demonstrated Hoffman’s greatness. In fact, he often summed up his admiration of the scene by repeating a variation of this simple phrase: “It’s perfect.” He is of course not alone in his esteem for Hoffman as an actor. Hoffman has since gone on to win an Oscar for Rain Man, and he is rightly considered to be a living legend. However, The Graduate is not a film that time has been kind to, and its story of a 1960’s slacker does not resonate with audience as much as it used to. Fortunately, Hoffman’s career is replete with performances that have the potential to astonish and electrify audiences. One such performance can be found in his 1978 film Straight Time, which contains what I believe is a performance for the ages.
The film is about a career criminal named Max Dembo who is released from jail in the film’s opening scene. The audience watches as he and a group of other prisoners walk out of the prison and into freedom for the first time in years. As Dembo walks toward his new life, his eyes dart from side to side, as if he is looking for someone, anyone, he recognizes. The men behind him, eager to reconnect with the loved ones happily waiting to take them home, begin passing him until it is clear that no one is there to greet Dembo. It is then that his face begins to take on the look of a man who is fully aware of his isolation. No words are spoken; in truth, none are needed.
So much could be written about Hoffman’s expressions in this film that it’s tempting to think that the expression the eyes are a window to the soul was created with him in mind. In early scenes, Hoffman’s eyes indicate Dembo’s acceptance of his solitude, while simultaneously giving us a hint at his resolution to start over. Later, in the office of an employment agency, they lose some of their strength, and Dembo begins releasing details of his imprisonment and criminal past. It is a risky move, one he may not even be consciously making. Finally, during pivotal moments in the film, his eyes reveal the existence of a chaotic, maniacal, obsessive mind, one that fixates on an idea and renders its owner incapable of receiving outside input or advice, leaving him at the mercy of his most violent impulses. It is clear that this is the state that led to his choosing a life of crime and that brought about his past incarcerations.
Straight Time is filled with wonderfully fascinating moments, from Dembo's awkward encounter at a Los Angeles hot dog stand (he doesn’t seem to remember he has to pay for things or that he has change coming back) to his initial conversation with his parole officer, during which we begin to see just who among them has the upper hand. The parole officer is played by M. Emmet Walsh, and it is unclear whether he is just doing his job or whether he gets a degree of sadistic pleasure from making Dembo’s life a living hell. The film has a rather moving love story involving Dembo and Jenny Mercer (Theresa Russell), the young woman who helps him get a job at a can factory, and one of the film’s nicest moments is one in which Dembo’s head rests on her chest. It is clear that she brings him a sense of tranquility and belonging. As for Jenny, she is sweet enough to overlook his past and give him a chance, yet naïve enough not to walk away at the first sign of trouble. The character will remind people a bit of Carmela Soprano, who like Jenny knew her man was a criminal but remained with him through willful ignorance of his exact crimes.
Straight Time was directed by Ulu Grosbard, who made just seven films before his death in 2012. From these films, one can surmise that he was drawn to stories about characters dealing with emotional and personal conflicts, and he has a knack for filming them. He often focuses his camera on the faces of characters as they inwardly react to the outside world, giving audiences a glimpse into their thoughts and emotions. The film is based on a novel by Edward Bunker, who wrote about his own experiences with the criminal world, and the script therefore has an authenticity that films by Hollywood screenwriters might otherwise lack. Bunker, who makes a brief cameo in the film, knows how criminals think, and he masterfully conveys the rush that accompanies robberies and the allure that these moments have for former criminals. It is telling that practically everyone from Dembo’s past tells him that they want in on whatever action he’s planning, regardless of how well they are doing in life. In an early scene which occurs before his rejection of the straight life, Dembo visits one of his old partners-in-crime, Willy Darin (Gary Busey). Darin has a job, a wife, and a son, yet the moment the two of them are alone, he makes it known that he is available for a job. The yearning for excitement has not gone unnoticed, and when Darin’s wife and Dembo are alone, she implores Dembo to keep a distance., Coming as they do early in the film, these pleas at first seem like another of the many unreasonable obstacles that Dembo has to face. That impression is no longer there by the end of the film.
The film is divided into two halves. In the first, Dembo tries to go straight; in the second, he abandons the effort. In the first half, he is therefore a sympathetic character, and we can root for him to persevere over the forces of prejudice and apathy that unwittingly conspire to make it hard for many parolees to truly start over. In truth, it is much more enjoyable to watch a character trying to be good that it is to watch him running around committing robberies. However, the second half of the film is not simply a series of crimes in which thievery is shown to pay dividends. Instead, with each crime, the audience gets further clues into Dembo’s psyche, and only one interpretation is possible: This is man who really never has a chance. (on DVD)
3 and a half stars
*My thanks to the late Gene Siskel, whose ranking of Straight Time as the best film of 1978 piqued my interest in the film.