Straight Time | Varied Celluloid

Straight Time

Posted by Josh Samford On July - 25 - 2008
Plot Outline: Max Dembo a recently paroled ex-burglar is set free into society. He has no intentions of getting back into his old life style and tries his best to fly straight, even getting a job and a girlfriend. Although he still has no intentions of going back to the life he visits one of his old friends, Willy Darin, who has a family of his own. Willy and Max begin to spark up their relationship again, Max even finds out Willy is a heroine addict after he shoots up in his room. Well, after Willy shoots up Max’s parole officer checks in on him. When he finds a match on the floor, he deducts that Max is the one on heroin. He throws Max in jail for literally nothing, and after a few days Max is found to be clean and let loose. Max then beats his parole officer down and heads back to the life, looking for that one last big score.

  

The Review: There was once a land called “the seventies”, of course I wasn’t even born when this land was in swing so I can’t comment much on it that can’t be found in the history books, but I’ll say this, the land of the seventies brought us some phenomenal cinema. I doubt things were any less complicated during this time, but at least America was making valuable cinema. Some might say the sixties were a better time, but I’ve never been much for all that counter culture hippie bull, and the seventies was part of what helped kill all that garbage. Making way for the capitalism of the eighties, where the hippies proved once and for all that they stood for nothing anyway. Still, there once was the seventies. A time when America was still trying to find it’s footing after Vietnam, and a time that makes someone from my generation ask “Why was something like this ever made? Did people actually truly care about the artistry of film back in those days?”. Today it seems like a film is either about money or getting that gold statue. Just look at the star of this film’s career, the nineties killed Dustin Hoffman. The eighties beamed him with baseball bats, but the nineties put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Spraying his collective talent all over the wall behind him. I’m not disrespecting the man, he’s put out a few worthy films during the nineties, but when was the last time he made a risky film? Matter of fact, when was the last time the Hollywood machine cranked out anything risky? These days if anything like that even qualifies, it’s immediately a cult classic or just ignored. If you look back though, risky films seemed to just come along more often.

Once more, look at Hoffman’s career. After making Midnight Cowboy at the end of the sixties he rebounded with Straw Dogs. Little Big Man came first, but I’ve never seen that. Anyway, After Straw Dogs came Pappilion, Lenny, All the President’s Men, and Marathon Man. I’ve yet to see Lenny, but the other films, we’re talking all classics. Now take a look at Hoffman’s career now, it’s the same with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, they’re all skating on what they used to be. Hoffman had Moonlight Mile came out a year or so ago, but I can’t even make myself actually rent it. It just seems like one of those flicks that are coming out every so often that seem to be begging the academy to notice them. I mean, how many more dysfunctional family films do we need? No offense, I’ve never seen the film, but I just get tired of seeing films like it here lately. Life as a House, Moonlight Mile, In the Bedroom or whatever give them their oscars and let’s move on. I hate to slam these flicks I’ve never seen (and probably won’t) but c’mon, anyone notice some similarities? Forget it, the whole point I’m trying to make is this: in a time where it seems everything is nothing but fake repetitive garbage, it’s almost shocking to look back on a film from twenty years ago that has more to say than anything we’ve been able to produce in a very long time. That’s what makes it so shocking when something like Narc comes along. Sure, it may not be the most original thing in the world, but my god is it alive.

The thing that got me so interested in seeing Straight Time is probably what’s drawn many to see it. Eddie Bunker. I’ve never read the book this film is based upon nor have I ever read another book by Eddie Bunker, so I can’t comment on how truthful the film is to it’s original source, but if that could ruin the film for me I’ll never ever read the book. The film just stands too well on it’s own, and anything that could stop me from loving this film isn’t worth the time. No offense to Bunker, he’s the man no doubt, but I just love this film too much. To think I wasn’t really expecting too much from it either. The 6.8 on the imdb should have said more to me than it did, but it didn’t and I was almost expecting mediocrity. I mean, how can anyone expect a sleeper film from the 70’s that has no real fame be that great? I don’t know, but it is. Straight Time is one of the most undervalued and unappreciated films I think I’ve ever seen. During the first thirty minutes or so of the film I thought I knew exactly what was going to happen, man wants out of the game but is dragged back in, Carlito’s Way style. Well, that’s essentially what happens but the big difference is Max Dembo isn’t an unwilling pawn in a game bigger than himself. He goes back to his old lifestyle totally willing and ready. He just comes to the point where he realizes he doesn’t want to live the way he is, and that it isn’t worth it. He’d rather risk his life for everything, than live his life with nothing. Dustin Hoffman, better here than I think he’s ever been, brings so much depth to a character that probably doesn’t even deserve it. Not even mentioning the supporting cast. Gary Busey, Harry Dean Stanton, M. Emmet Walsh and even Kathy Bates in her first credited appearance with the name “Kathy Bates”. Of all the supporting cast talent, not surprisingly Harry Dean Stanton stands out the most. From Dillinger to Repo Man, he’s just impossible not to like. One of my personal favorite character actors in the biz. Gary Busey also puts in a great and subtle performance believe it or not, as the junky of the group, one can’t help but feel some pity for him. Last but not least, Theresa Russell. Not only is she a beautiful girl, but she’s also a tremendous actress. She’s basically caught in the center of all this mess, and Max Dembo knows it. She’s kind of a pitiful character, but she’s also fairly aware of what she’s getting into. She kind of lives in a lighter world than Max Dembo, since she doesn’t see it all, it doesn’t exist.

What I really loved and found so genuine about Straight Time was how real it all felt. It’s not the romanticized version of the ‘gangster’ we usually have in our minds, these are men, and mortal men at that, who commit terrible acts but aren’t without a conscious. Although the film is set in California, the supporting cast and even Hoffman actually give the film a sort of Southern feel. Maybe it’s just cause I’m from Louisiana, but with the accents and even the way they talk and act, it almost felt like I was sitting in someone’s living room. I’ve met people who act just like Max Dembo, Willy Darin and Jerry Schlue. The scene in Willy Darin’s house (with Kathy Bates) is a prime example, people sitting around drinking beer and just talking about nothing, there’s something real and subtle about that scene. This isn’t Reservoir Dogs, these people aren’t witty and they aren’t really all that intelligent, at least when it comes to something other than crime. It’s reality, sure some things don’t completely add up and there might be a plot gap or two, but it’s all easy to look over when you see the film as a whole. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but the ending. Man, the ending! One of the most tense getaway scenes ever filmed and one of the most exhilarating action scenes known to man. There’s no huge car chase or explosions, there’s no helicopters or even large gun fights. It’s just men trying to run for their lives. I won’t go into spoilers, but if you watch the film watch it only for the spectacular ending. Since I’m an avid gamer the first things that popped in my mind were “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” and “Driver”, the scene plays out like it could easily come from either game. Actually the scene is actually quite reminiscent of the bank heist mission on Vice City, but that’s neither here nor there.

Nothing much else to say, this is a forgotten masterpiece. Along with “The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3”, “The French Connection” and “Dog Day Afternoon” Straight Time stands out as one of the many great crime films released in the decade known as the seventies. It’s a film that anyone interested in crime films should see, and anyone who loves good cinema should see. A classic.



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Varied Celluloid is a film website intent on delivering views on movies from all genres. Started in 2003, the website has been steadfast in its goal and features a database of over 500 lengthy reviews. If you would like to contact us about writing for the website or sending screeners, please visit the about page located here.

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