Movies about criminals have come at us in all sizes and shapes. One of my favorite is a film that is a quiet, reflective film about a life-long thief that tries to turn his life around, but can't, opting for what he knows best, planning and carrying out small heists. That film is Straight Time (1978) directed by Ulu Grosbard.
If this summary sounds like a cliché, well, it certainly could have been a tired, predictable film. But Straight Time shows you what you can accomplish with a smart screenplay, excellent performances by the entire ensemble and honest direction. This film's subtleties may be the reason why this isn't better known. Certainly the tone of this work is unlike most contemporary films, as it doesn't have a climax or action scene every ten minutes. But how nice is that? - a slice of life film that takes its time and gives us a world we don't often see.
The film opens as Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) is released from prison and takes a public bus to town. Upon arrival, he orders a hot dog at a street stand and tries to take off without paying. This guy is small-time in every way.
He then meets with his parole officer, Earl, an overweight, rather awkward man played with great gusto by the wonderful character actor M. Emmet Walsh. Earl lays down the rules for Max and acts as though he wants to help, but in reality, he's a bit of a power broker and enjoys lording his authority over Max. The numerous times he tells ugly jokes gives us great insight into this oversized clown of a man. (In one of the film's best scenes, Max gets his revenge on Earl in a very unusual way.)
Max then starts to reconnect with his friends from his criminal past, most notably Willy (Gary Busey) and Jerry (Harry Dean Stanton). The initial dinner at Willy's house, set in the small, drab kitchen is a marvelous scene that shows us the despair of this man and his wife and young son. Willy tries hard, but he's a screwup - next to him, Max is a genius.
A much smarter friend is Jerry, who has great plans organized for Max and himself. He is a successful criminal and it's an interesting contrast to see the suburban home - complete with swimming pool - where he lives. Max senses right away that Jerry is his ticket to money and survival.
But before he can pull of any more heists, he has to get a job and find a room. He does that with the help of Jenny, an attractive woman in her mid-late 20s (effectively played by the beautiful Theresa Russell), who works at an employment agency. She helps Max find a simple job with a can company at scale wages and Max, thrilled with his good fortune, asks her out to dinner and she accepts.
The fact that she says yes upon first asking seems a bit much and it's about the only criticism I have of the film. I'd like to know a bit more about her; for example, it's hard to believe she doesn't have a boyfriend, given her looks. Sure Max is catching her at a fortunate time, but you have to wonder why she would say yes to an ex-con at first asking. We do see the sincerity of Max at the office when he admits right away that he spent time at the state penitentary - her response is "How long did you hold that position?", - so we see that she is won over by Max's honesty. Perhaps that's enough, as we're asked to take a small leap of faith here, but then again, there have been an awful lot of female characters in the cinema that have fallen for the wrong guy, so it's not a major stumbling block in this film.
The remainder of the film are set pieces of the heists Max and Jerry pull off, from small stuff to more serious bank and jewelry store robberies. As Max becomes more successful, his relationship with Jenny deepens, but this is no syrupy romance. It's a complex mixture of real affection for her combined with his using her for his benefit, as he can borrow her car or stay at her place.
The glue that really holds all this together is Dustin Hoffman. The man's had a lengthy career with numerous ups and downs, and this performance is definitely one of his finest. His Max Dembo has a few dreams like all men, but he hides those thoughts, as he is always turning back toward the present - what can he do to make money and stay one step ahead of the law at the same time? There is time for personal relationships, but only if they fit his schedule. Hoffman is wonderful at conveying the quiet, contemplative mood of this small time crook. He can fly into a violent rage when things go wrong, but more often that not, he's glancing at everything around him, as though he knows his time is limited. Hoffman certainly has created one of his most memorable characters in this film, one without emoting and one that fits him like a glove.
Grosbard's direction is restrained and attentive to details. This is not about tricky camera shots, but putting the camera on the faces of the characters and letting the actors play out their roles. The love scene between Max and Jenny comes at a somewhat surprising moment in the film and it's handled with wonderful subtlety and efficieny - it's one of the quietest love scenes I've witnessed in any film and yet it's very moving at the same time (this scene is aided greatly by an understated, lovely piano passage composed by David Shire, who also added a wonderfully jaunty title theme.)
We are creatures of habit, seems to be one of the overriding messages of Straight Time. No matter whether we choose to help others or act against society, we all return to our comfort level.