Helmed by stage and screen director Ulu Grosbard and written by screenwriters Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People), Edward Bunker (whose life the film is based on), and Jeffrey Boam (Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Innerspace), the 1978 film Straight Time feels more like a Michael Mann production than anything else (he was an uncredited writer on the project, along with Slap Shot’s Nancy Dowd), with certain aspects feeling like early warm-ups for the events that would comprise the narratives of Thief and Heat. Starring Dustin Hoffman as a career criminal in what ultimately amounts to more than likely the best performance of his legendary career, this is a film of simple, direct power, never straying over the top, preferring sensible, if sudden and surprising, plot developments that propel the story forward at a brisk pace.
The fantastic M. Emmet Walsh co-stars as Hoffman’s overbearing parole officer, a man all too eager to throw Hoffman back into the joint after he’s been released in the first scene after six years in the pen, and there’s one scene between him and Hoffman at the film’s midpoint that’s got to be one of the funniest, most unexpected things I’ve seen in any movie. An innocent looking Theresa Russell, 21 at the time(!), is Hoffman’s love interest, a job-finder working with ex-cons who develops an unlikely crush on Hoffman. She knows he’s bad, just not HOW bad, and her character struck me as an almost exact match to Amy Brenneman’s role in Mann’s Heat. She’s the normally sensible woman who just gravitates towards the wrong man, even if her head is telling her no, because her heart is telling her yes.
The Heat-isms don’t stop there either; in one scene, Hoffman gives a moralistic speech that sounds like a junior version of De Niro’s cold-hearted “walk out on ’em in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner” spiel that’s now become so popular. Hoffman’s increasingly desperate string of robberies mimics the late in the game plotting of Heat, and one lead character’s decision to kill another character feels incredibly reminiscent of Mann having De Niro take care of business during the final 30 minutes of Heat. Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey(!), and an almost unrecognizable Kathy Bates also have memorable bit parts. Hoffman is just electric here, quiet and reserved one moment, then all explosive rage the next, and while it feels a bit movie-movie that a sweet girl like the one Russell portrays would fall for a guy like Hoffman, I went along with it at all times because of the conviction of Grosbard’s unfussy direction, the uniformity of the performances, and the surprising beats that the story took at more than one juncture.
Grosbard, a talented storyteller who moved back and forth between movies and theater, never got in the way of his performers or added any unnecessary stylistic flourishes that would have otherwise distracted from his highly disciplined aesthetic. Owen Roizman’s crisp and clean cinematography eschewed any sense of artifice, bringing the same stripped down quality he brought to such seminal 70’s films such as The French Connection, Network, and The Exorcist. Hopefully, Warner Brothers will put out a special edition Blu-ray or license the rights to The Criterion Collection, because this is a film that’s worthy of long-term preservation.