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.