Retro Reviews: STRAIGHT TIME (1978)

This underappreciated nugget from the '70s is a must-see for fans of Dustin Hoffman, author Edward Bunker and Quentin Tarantino.

Smack in between The Graduate and Rain Man on Dustin Hoffman's filmography is this under-seen gem from 1978, which seems to have slipped through the cracks despite a great cast and a surprising but undeniable connection to the Tarantinoverse. Straight Time starts as a compelling tale of the struggles of Max Dembo, a newly freed ex-con (Hoffman) in the first days of his release - what cons call "straight time." The film's first act covers well-worn territory: ex-con tries to find an honest job, fall in love and avoid the crowd that will pull him toward his old ways. But as a man who's spent his entire adult life in prison, Max has no coping tools or skills, and struggles with even the most basic shit. And from day one he's hounded by a smirking asshole of a parole officer (M. Emmett Walsh) with a slight sadistic streak, whose built-in suspicion and lack of faith in Max all but guarantees the parolee's failure.

Hoffman is doing work here that ranks among his best; you really feel for Max Dembo, a guy who'd like to get his shit together once out of prison, but who is so used to wrong turns that he doesn't know any other direction. Soon Max is back in the world of professional thieves in L.A., taking us with him. Again, stock stuff, but the difference is in the details: director Ulu Grosbard presents a criminal underworld that is alternately frightening, amusing and tragic, but always unglamorous and authentic. The claustrophobia is palpable as Max slowly realizes he's used up all his fresh starts, and as a viewer you're left to cringe as you watch Max spiral down, until the film jumps tracks to what must have been something of a revenge fantasy for its author.

That author is Edward Bunker, and the source material is No Beast So Fierce, a semi-autobiographical, unpublished novel by Bunker (who cameos here, and who plays Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs).  Movie nerds will notice immediately that the film's third act could have taken place on the same sunny Los Angeles day as the central robbery of Reservoir Dogs; the aesthetic similarities are almost stunning. I'd need to do closer comparisons, but the neighborhoods and back alleys used in the exteriors of Tarantino's film look nearly identical to the locales in Straight Time, and there's just no way it's an accident. The similarities don't end there, but it's fun to have them reveal themselves as you watch.

It's a shame the film doesn't get more love, as it's a fine, nuanced picture of self-destruction in the vein of The Wrestler, with great supporting work from a pre-crazy Gary Busey (the same year he'd get an Oscar nod for playing Buddy Holly), a very young Kathy Bates and the always great Harry Dean Stanton. It's a film that's funny and human and small and real in the way Hoffman probably wishes his most memorable vehicles were.