Back in the ‘70s, before his apotheosis, Dustin Hoffman was just a damn good actor. In Straight Time he plays the lead role of Max Dembo, an ex-con just out of prison. He tries to obey the rules, but he’s a stiff-necked and proud man. The bureaucratically bland arrogance of his parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh) leads him straight into a violent explosion and the life of crime he thought he could leave behind.
The film is based on No Beast So Fierce, by Eddie Bunker, an ex-con who took to writing to get out of his life as a criminal and ward of the state. Bunker also co-wrote the screenplay and tutored Hoffman in the life of parolees. It’s a gritty film, with taut and suspenseful robberies that have the feel of something you might see on a security camera, not Hollywood’s lens. Viewers of Reservoir Dogs will remember Bunker as Mr. Blue (he has a part in Straight Time as well). Quentin Tarantino has made no secret of his admiration of Bunker’s work and many little touches in Straight Time are echoed in Reservoir Dogs.
Ultimately viewers will have to decide to what degree they sympathize with Max Dembo. It would be easy to see him as just a victim. But that is to entirely miss the point. Dembo’s character creates his surroundings as much as his surroundings create him. Bunker’s and Hoffman’s genius was to show Dembo from both angles.