Thursday, March 22, 2012

Man Out of Time: Ulu Grosbard's Straight Time (1979)

***A repost in memory of Ulu Grosbard, who passed away over the weekend at the age of 83.***

I first saw STRAIGHT TIME (1979) as a teenager in the late eighties via a full frame, and worn out, VHS copy that I found at an Evansville, Indiana video store. I remembered it being a very strong drama with great performances by Dustin Hoffman and Theresa Russell but I had never considered it one of the great American films of the seventies. I recently revisited STRAIGHT TIME and found it one of the most devastating film experiences I have had in a long time. This movie jolted me in ways very few films do anymore.

Dustin Hoffman gives one of the great American performances as Max Dembo, a persistent felon who has been let out of prison on parole after serving six years for armed robbery. Max explains early on that he just wants what everyman wants, a place to live, a good job, a woman who loves him. After being busted again, this time unfairly, Max goes on an angry and frustrated rampage of crime and in the process loses the beautiful woman who loves him, his freedom and finally himself. I was so engrossed by STRAIGHT TIME and yet, at times, I just wanted to look away as I knew that the outcome of Max's life was doomed from the opening frame on.

STRAIGHT TIME was directed by Ulu Grosbard from a script by real life bank robber Edward Bunker. Michael Mann had an uncredited hand in the script and his work on this film surely informed his own later masterpieces like THIEF and HEAT. Bunker knew the life and it is this honesty that really informs STRAIGHT TIME and elevates it above a routine crime film.

David Shire delivers one of his most memorable scores here and it is the equal to some of his best work from the seventies. Unfortunately it appears a full soundtrack was never released. Underrated BOBBY DEERFIELD Production Designer Stephen B. Grimes also deserves a special mention for his work on Dembo's depressing little rent by the week room and for Russell's incredibly natural looking apartment where Max manages to find a little peace and warmth. Legendary EXORCIST cinematographer Owen Roizman provides the film with the notable sun burned and grimy look that is especially effective in the films breathless Beverly Hills chase sequence and the eerie final shots.

Hoffman had originally wanted to direct STRAIGHT TIME but problems with the studio brought this to a halt after just a few days. Grosbard had a less than prolific but interesting career. He had previously worked with Hoffman on WHO IS HARRY KELLERMAN AND WHY IS HE SAYING THOSE TERRIBLE THINGS ABOUT ME? and he would later unleash Jennifer Jason Leigh in one of her great performances in GEORGIA. His work on STRAIGHT TIME is frankly quite remarkable. This doesn't feel like a Hollywood studio film, it has a real authenticity about it that comes through in every shot. It is a mesmerizing work about a lost and haunted man who is out of options and very much out of time.

Theresa Russell had just turned twenty when she shot STRAIGHT TIME. It was her first major role after Elia Kazan's 1976 film of THE LAST TYCOON and she proves herself as one of the great actors to come out of the seventies here. Vulnerable and yet projecting an undeniable strength, the young Russell matches Hoffman's powerful portrayal every step of the way. She would only get better and by the time she shot Nicolas Roeg's BAD TIMING in 1979, there were few American actresses who could inject a role with more intelligence and emotion than Theresa Russell could. STRAIGHT TIME remains one of the great roles in what should have been a much more distinguished career for the undervalued Russell. The rest of the cast is noteworthy as well and includes an astonishing Gary Busey, Harry Dean Stanton and a searing M. Emmet Walsh as the terrifying parole officer who seems bent on sucking all of the remaining life out of Dembo.

The film belongs to Hoffman though. I recently wrote that MARATHON MAN was perhaps his greatest performance but after re watching STRAIGHT TIME it seems clear to me that his possession of Max Dembo is his finest two hours. It's right up there with many of the seventies most iconic and brilliantly realized roles, which includes Pacino in SERPICO, De Niro in TAXI DRIVER and Hackman in NIGHT MOVES. I find Hoffman's work as Dembo really wrenching and downright draining. You like this guy even when he is fucking up beyond belief towards the end, and his disintegration is absolutely heartbreaking. Hoffman delivers one of the most majestic essays on human loss and personal failing ever put on film in STRAIGHT TIME. Days later, it is still a performance that I can't stop thinking about.

STRAIGHT TIME opened up in the spring of 1979 to mixed reviews and lukewarm box office returns. It would go missing in action for awhile afterwards but has recently reappeared on DVD with a commentary by Hoffman and Grosbard. It is a tough and emotionally wrecking film that is wrenching to watch but worth the work. I am grateful to Hoffman for his work in this film, outside of being a great work of art it helped me understand some damaging family issues that have arisen for me in the past decade. If you haven't seen it, or haven't seen it recently, give it a look. You're not likely to forget it anytime soon.


Bruce said...

Great post. The movie is actually from Bunker's No Beast So Fierce book. Well worth reading along with his Education of a Felon.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks for the tip...I would be curious to check that book out...thanks again for stopping by and commenting

Joe Valdez said...

Awesome report from the vaults. I haven't seen Straight Time in a decade. I didn't know that it had been released properly on DVD with extras.

I've never heard of Dustin Hoffman doing an audio commentary, but considering he started off as the film's director, it kind of makes sense.

Yeah, I strongly encourage anyone who hasn't seen this yet to give it a spin. It's one of the best crime films of its era.

My distaste for Nicolas Roeg precludes me from doing such, but you should consider writing a Theresa Russell series, Jeremy.

Rogue Spy 007 said...

Part of me thinks I saw this film years ago, but I wouldn't swear to it. Your wonderful post makes me want to see it again. Hoffman is one of our finest actors. He does so much good work.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith,
Give the film another look if you get a is amazing.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Joe,
I am thinking of doing a Theresa tribute. She has been on my mind a lot you don't like Roeg? It is always good to find differemces I think, as he is probably my top five all time favorite directors...oh well, hope you still enjoy the Theresa tribute if I can get it togther...
As always, thanks for commenting

justmeguy said...

I remember seeing this movie at the old Paramount theater. Since the theater did not belong to any major chain, it had to settle for movies that nobody wanted. And this was one of them. I was so struck my this movie. It made me realize for the first time how a life of crime is not something a person can just run away from. It always follows you. I am happy to see such a great piece on one of the most interesting movies of the amazing 1970's.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much JustMeGuy for the memory and for the nice comment...greatly appreciated...

Lastyear said...

Great film.It's a shame it took so long to come to DVD.Also has a early Kathy Bates performance.Ed Bunker who wrote the original novel its based on can also be seen as one the thieves in Reservoir Dogs.

Jeremy Richey said...

THanks LastYear...I appreciate the comments. I totally forgot that Bunker is in Resevoir Dogs...I need to go back and give him a look in it...thanks again

Roger said...

I saw this opening weekend in Westwood back in the day (during finals week at UCLA - I was one of about 3 people in there). You're on the money that this absolutely transcends the crime drama genre to be authentic and wrenching and fascinating (like a a train wreck) yet all beautifully controlled, from acting to cinematography.

I remember being absolutely on the edge of my seat during the "real time" jewelry store robbery. Glass breaking and the clock ticking. I also loved the difference in the various side characters - Busey and Stanton flavor the proceedings in completely different and surprising ways and keep things interesting. Not just 2 generic thugs.

I think this was the film that started my love affair with Russell. Bad Timing (perversely) would seal the deal.

Thanks again for bringing such a seminal film to our attention (again). A shame this is so relatively unknown.