' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Straight Time (1978)

Friday, April 26, 2024

Friday's Old Fashioned: Straight Time (1978)

What sticks out in finally watching “Straight Time” 45 years after the fact isn’t, as it turns out, how Bruce Springsteen lifted the title for “Ghost of Tom Joad” Side 1, Track 2 but just how much it influenced resident American movie directing genius Michael Mann. In fact, Mann worked on the screenplay of director Ulu Grosbard’s movie, though did not end up with a credit, not that it really matters. You can see the fingerprints of “Straight Time” all over parts of the exalted Mann oeuvre, from “Thief” to “Heat,” right down to an inverted version of the canonical 30 seconds flat speech. Indeed, “Straight Time” was based on a novel by one-time real-life convict Edward Bunker, who co-wrote the script, and he would become something of a spiritual collaborator with Mann from that point forward. Mann, though, is a perfectionist, and so were his thieves, Frank and Neil McCauley in, respectively, “Thief” and “Heat.” Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman), on the other hand, of “Straight Time” might think he’s a perfectionist, but events demonstrate otherwise, and unlike Neil McCauley, who wasn’t going back to the clink no matter what, Max is drawn to it like a tractor beam.

“Straight Time” begins with Max being released from prison after six years on a burglary charge and the first thing he does is buy a hot dog from a street vendor, which Hoffman does not play like a newly free man indulging joy so much as lack of a better idea, underscored by his weird indifference, sort of staring into space, at first forgetting to pay and then just sort of shuffling off. He is supposed to check into a halfway house but ditches for a hotel instead, explaining to his parole officer Earl (M. Emmet Walsh) that he wanted to spend his first night of freedom feeling truly free. He says things like this, about enjoying his freedom, about living on the straight and narrow, but the movie never seems to take it all that seriously. With the help of Jenny (Theresa Russell) at an employment agency, Max lands a job at a canning factory, but “Straight Time” barely bothers with that subplot. And though Earl’s condescending air denotes a system not necessarily designed to help, in their conversations, you can also sense Max already pressing to find the cracks, to see what he can get away with. More than a guy used to life on the inside, really, Hoffman portrays Max as a simmering pot, and by the time he breaks parole, he has come to boil. 

Walsh is a marvel as Earl, acting as if he’s patting Max on the back even as he’s hanging him out to dry. Russell, meanwhile, effects something past mere sympathy for Max, more a kind of youthful ennui that goes a long way in suggesting how she would be carried away by him even after he goes on the run and even though her character mostly exists just for him to jettison at the end as recidivist representation. More effective, is the reflective character of Jerry Schue (Harry Dean Stanton), a career criminal like Max who has managed to go straight but yearns to break free by breaking bad. In the scene where Jerry confesses this, Grosbard almost lays the dichotomy on too thick, putting Jerry and Max beside the former’s backyard pool, the two of them eating hot dogs, though how Stanton says it cuts right through all that anyway, the plaintive B-side to Tom Sizemore in “Heat” admitting the action is the juice. Jerry’s subsequent rendition of an old gospel tune begging forgiveness might have been laying it on thick too, though the way the camera drifts, up, up, and away renders it poignant, evoking God not turning His back, per se, but putting a little distance between the two of them, nevertheless. 

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