10/40/70 #12: Straight Time


This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine Straight Time, directed by Ulu Grosbard.

Straight Time (1978, dir. Ulu Grosbard)

Thank you to Sugar for bringing this film to my attention. Straight Time was written by Nancy Dowd, who also wrote the incoherently perfect film Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains (1981). Dustin Hoffman, whose previous two films had been All the President’s Men and Marathon Man (both 1976) says this as his first line in the film: “Hotdog.”

10 minutes:
Much of Straight Time is a duel between two characters: Max Dembo (Hoffman), an ex-con who tries to go straight, and Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh), his authoritarian-with-a-ready-smile parole officer. But it is also a duel between two actors in what are, arguably, the performances of their careers, and it’s a draw. In this scene, Dembo checks in with Earl, who has already taken a disliking to Max, who is overly polite and apologetic and meek in his efforts to win Earl over. One of the great strengths and mysteries of the movie centers on this question: why does Earl so dislike Max? Is Earl a sadist who enjoys abusing his power? (At one point, without warning, he handcuffs Max to his bed while he searches his apartment, for which Max later gets even by handcuffing Earl to a chain-link fence in the median of an interstate and pulling down his pants and underwear.) Or does Earl recognize from the very beginning that Max is, in fact, a career criminal who is either incapable or unwilling to change his ways?

The frame captures Max with that inscrutable look on his face, as he watches Earl fill out paperwork that will directly impact Max’s future:

Earl: I’ll make a deal with you. If you find a place to sleep today and a job by the end of the week, you don’t have to go to a half-way house. Now is that fair?

Max: That’s fair. I appreciate that.

Max’s face: is he already thinking how to con Earl? How many steps ahead of the game is he in this moment? He smokes nervously during the conversation. Is this because he can barely keep up his performance as a contrite, polite ex-con, or because there’s no performance at all, and he’s just terrified of Earl’s power over him?

40 minutes:
Max has been jailed — put there by Earl — while the results of his drug test come back. He’s clean. This is part of a slow panning shot around the cell showing four guys, the shot ending on Max. In this frame, a cellmate is reading a magazine. The pink blanket. The bare feet. The vertical window as if lit by some supernatural source. The grunge of the analog Seventies, before the clean binary disposition of the digital. In March 1978 — the same month and year that Straight Time was released — the English punk band 999 released their debut album, which included the single “Emergency,” a jaunty anthem, some of whose lyrics go:

Never make the same mistakes
Sometimes care sometimes not
See them bleed and see them rot.

In its first half, Straight Time has the look and feel the Neil Young Seventies: long hair, slow camera work, easy stretches of time, and a sort of resigned nostalgia tinged with cynicism. But by the second half, the film has switched into its punk rock mode, calling to mind the fierce beauty of Penelope Houston and The Avengers, or 999, as Max wrests control away from Earl’s car, handcuffs him to the highway fence, and begins an anarchic crime spree.

70 minutes:
Max doing a U-turn in the middle of the street on his way to steal a gun that he’ll use in robberies. He is a completely different man now than he was during the That’s fair / I appreciate that portion of the film’s first half. The vanishing point of lights in the shot, the freshly painted and beautifully lit XING, the car going the wrong way.

The wrong way. Watching Straight Time is like having spears thrown at you from ten different directions at once. You’re under assault, but you’re not sure from where. You think, I can handle this movie, but you can’t. As a product of the Seventies the movie is as incoherent as the decade itself, and it elevates this incoherence to 114 minutes of distilled menace and pleasure and ambush. Whereas late-Sixties outlaw / anti-hero films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Easy Rider (both 1969) romanticized characters who lived outside the law, many mid-Seventies films like Straight Time and the Missouri Breaks (1976) offered a more ambiguous and blurred vision: in a nation that had lost confidence in politics, in leaders, in the military, in the family, and in American exceptionalism itself, was there even such a thing as “good” and “bad” characters?

If you’ve never seen Straight Time before and you decide to, be careful. You will be ambushed.

Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →