Ah, Dustin! If you've only been exposed to the latter-day, comic Dustin Hoffman (Meet the Fockers, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium) or the better-known, showy Dustin (Rain Man, Tootsie), then Straight Time will be a pleasant revelation. It's of a piece with his work in All the President's Men, which came a little before this film, and Kramer vs. Kramer, which came a little after, in that he plays a character who feels true to life, someone you might meet on the street and recognize as a kindred soul. Really, his character harkens back to Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, albeit a Benjamin Braddock who has been shaped for a life in crime rather than a career in plastics.
Hoffman inhabits Max Dembo like a well-worn shoe. Max has been released from prison after six years. He rides a bus to Los Angeles, gets off with his tiny paper bag of possessions, eats a hot dog. It's only the next day, when he visits his parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh), that it's revealed he did something wrong: he didn't report to the halfway house as ordered, which makes him immediately suspect in the eyes of the parole officer. Max's mood changes swiftly from genial respect to rebellious belligerence to resigned subservience as the parole officer questions him. He knows how the game is supposed to be played. He's been in and out of criminal institutions since he was a kid. That doesn't make it any easier for him.
Max reaches an agreement with the parole officer to find a job and rent a room within the week. He promptly heads to an employment agency, where he meets Jenny (Theresa Russell). She is very young and beautiful; she locks eyes with Max and doesn't look away when he tells her that he's a convict. He convinces her that he is desperate for a job, even as he flirts with her. He gets the job in a canning factory and rents a tiny room. So far, so good. Then he makes a big mistake. He calls up his old friend Willy (Gary Busey). Willy can't wait to see Max and is proud to show off his young son Henry (Jake Busey). The problem is that Willy is an ex-con, too, and, as his wife Selma (Kathy Bates) kindly but sadly explains to Max, it's probably best that the two not spend any time together; bad influences and all that. Besides, men on parole are not supposed to associate with known criminals.
Willy drops Max back at his place, then comes up and does something that will cost Max dearly. Max enjoys a dinner date with Jenny, but the next night the parole officer drops by and ... wham! Max is suddenly locked up in County Jail for possible parole violation. Max has been the picture of compliance, so it feels outrageous to see him subjected to such a dehumanizing, humiliating experience. Jenny visits him and the contrast between light and dark couldn't be more apparent. She's the same, sunny, lovely girl in clean clothes with a disarming smile, and he's already beaten down and dirty, barely able to articulate a sentence.
The parole officer finally returns to fetch Max after he's been cleared of the charge against him, but the conversation takes an unexpected turn, setting in motion Max's return to criminal activity.
The change in Max is noticeable. The restraints are off. Instead of walking around like he has a stick up his butt, he strides with confidence. He's prone to bursts of furious anger. He seems to be listening to the voices inside, which tell him to do whatever he wants. Sometimes he's all con man, wheedling and whispering and seducing. He seems like a different person, which makes it clear that his actions when first paroled were all tightly controlled, like bunching up a coil. It's a wonder that he didn't explode sooner.
Hoffman is a wonder in the role, as much as anything because it doesn't seem like he's acting. There are few theatrical dramatics, few speeches and little back story on career criminal Max Dembo. You can sympathize with his situation -- we've seen a brief reminder of how inmates are treated in prison -- even as his actions betray a heart that has been drained of empathy. 'This is who I am,' he essentially says to Jenny at one point. 'Can you take it?'
Theresa Russell, in just her second film role at the age of 20 or 21, looks incredibly young, yes, but her effectiveness goes beyond her physical appearance. Her character is enamored of the "bad boy," perhaps for the first time in her life, and she's not sure she really wants the kind of life that Max leads, but she wants something different and is willing to embrace the risk.
As the wary parole officer, M. Emmet Walsh doesn't realize, and probably doesn't care, how difficult he makes it for Max; he thinks he's just doing his job. Pre-The Buddy Holly Story, Gary Busey looks like a big dumb kid, completely without guile or malice in his heart. (It's fun to see his son Jake Busey actually playing his son.) Kathy Bates nails her scene with just the right tone. Harry Dean Stanton is excellent as another career criminal gone straight, but itching to get back in the life. He's a good counterpoint to Hoffman's Max.
The film is based on the novel "No Beast So Fierce" by Edward Bunker. Bunker was a career criminal who wrote the book while incarcerated in San Quentin Prison. Ulu Grosbard read the book and passed it on to Hoffman as a friendly gesture; the two had worked together previously on the stage, but Grosbard wasn't thinking "source material for a film," he just thought it was a good book. Hoffman became fascinated by the book and optioned it, eventually getting to know Bunker and spending many months in research and preparation for the role and for the film. Hoffman planned to produce and direct; it took only a few days, though, before he fired himself as director and asked Grosbard to step in. Looking back, Hoffman says he regrets not directing the film, though he feels Grosbard did a masterful job.
Straight Time features one of the best roles Dustin Hoffman ever played. It's a revealing look at the unglamorous side of Los Angeles. It's an unvarnished examination of the challenges facing ex-convicts trying to go straight. It's a drama punctuated by bursts of action that look unstaged. It's a daytime noir that's shot through with regret and inevitability. After three decades, Straight Time stands up beautifully.