There was a joke going around back in the early 1960s, “Do you ever watch The Untouchables and catch yourself pulling for the good guys?” It really is amazing how easily a movie can get us to pull for the criminals, making us hope they get away with their crimes. This is done primarily by making the criminal the protagonist, and also by having that criminal played by a major star.
Is Straight Time that kind of movie? At first, I thought so, but as I got further into the movie, I came to the conclusion that Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman), a criminal just being released from prison after spending six years behind bars for burglary, was just not sympathetic enough to make me want him to get away with anything. In fact, I thought the movie was a good illustration of why most people are unwilling to give a convicted felon a second chance. But after watching the movie, I read some reviews and found that some critics saw Max as a victim of the difficulties of going straight in general and of his parole officer Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh) in particular. This in turn made me wonder if the people who made this movie, director Ulu Grosbard among others, wanted me to be sympathetic to Max after all.
The first two sentences of a plot summary on IMDb is typical: “After being released on parole, a burglar attempts to go straight, get a regular job, and just go by the rules. He soon finds himself back in jail at the hands of a power-hungry parole officer.” Well, I take exception to two parts of that summary, that Max attempts to “just go by the rules,” and that the parole officer is “power-hungry.”
The first thing we see Max do is order a hot dog and then “forget” to pay for it. Then he shows up late for his meeting with his parole officer, who wants to know where he stayed the night before, because he did not show up at the halfway house, which was required as one of the conditions of his parole, something Max agreed to upon his release from prison. Max says, “Because I just spent six years in prison. I just wanted to look at the lights. I wanted to feel free. I wanted to walk around and not have somebody tell me that I gotta get in bed at ten.”
Well, isn’t that nice. Max believes that what he wants is more important than the rules. Of course, that’s why he has such a long rap sheet in the first place, because he thought that the fact that he wanted something that belonged to someone else was more important than the rule that prohibits stealing. The rest of us know that we have to try to satisfy our wants while complying with the rules, but apparently six years in prison was not enough to teach Max that lesson.
If I were parole officer Frank, by this time I would be disgusted. He tells Max he has an attitude problem, which he most certainly does. But Max is either dense or purposely acting that way, because he asks what kind of attitude he is supposed to have. Frank patiently explains the facts of life to Max: “Well, you don’t decide whether or not you go to a halfway house. I mean, you come to me, we discuss it, then I decide.” Sounds reasonable to me, but I guess this is what the critic on IMDb meant by saying that Frank was a “power-hungry parole officer.” I would have told Max to get his ass over to the halfway house, and that once he had checked in there, he could come back to my office and we could start talking about his finding a job. But Frank is more generous than I would have been, saying, “I’ll make a deal with you, Max. 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 halfway house. Fair?” More than fair, as far as I’m concerned.
At the employment agency, Max is given some tests, one of which is typing. The employment agent who is testing him is Jenny (Theresa Russell). She tells Max three times that his time is up, for him to stop typing, but you know how Max is about the rules. He doesn’t want to stop typing, so he figures that entitles him to keep going. Jenny finally has to rip the paper out of the typewriter.
Max goes to visit his friend Willy (Gary Busey), who has apparently also done time. After Willy leaves the room for a minute, his wife Selma (Kathy Bates) tells Max that it would be best for him not to come around, because Willy has been doing well going straight, and she is afraid that Max might not be a good influence on him. And then she makes a further observation: “You’re on parole now, Max. Well, you really shouldn’t even be seen with Willy, right?” So here we are again. A condition of Max’s parole is that he not associate with convicted felons like Willy, but I guess Max wanted to see Willy, and as we know, what he wants always trumps the rules.
In his Guide for the Film Fanatic, Danny Peary seems to be another critic who sympathizes with Max, saying that Frank is venal. Now, “venal” means “corrupt or willing to be bribed,” but there is nothing to indicate that about Frank. He just seems to be doing his job trying to run herd on a bunch of lowlifes like Max. Peary also says that Frank intends to send Max back to prison, but I see nothing to indicate that. If Max had followed the rules by going to the halfway house and avoiding Willy as he was supposed to, everything would have been fine.
Instead, just as Selma feared, when Willy goes over to Max’s motel room, he does himself up with a nice fix of heroin, and then carelessly leaves behind evidence of the deed, causing Frank to bring Max in for a drug test. His urine tests clean, but after that he breaks parole completely and goes back into a life of crime. But even in that realm, Max cannot go by the rules. Another friend of his, Jerry (Harry Dean Stanton), agrees to rob a bank and later a jewelry store with Max, but in both cases, Max refuses to leave the establishment when the allowed amount of time that they agreed to is up. “You’re like a two-year-old child,” Jerry tells Max in exasperation.
I don’t even want to talk about how stupid Jenny is for dating Max and wanting to stay with him even after she finds out that he has gone back into crime. He leaves her behind at a diner where a bus will take her back to Los Angeles, telling her she can’t go with him because he says he wants to get caught. Oh brother! Now, it is one thing to say that about somebody else, but it sounds artificial and hokey when someone says that about himself. Besides, if he wants to get caught, he can just turn himself in. Presumably, we are supposed to imagine that Jenny won’t be implicated, but she was seen leaving the office with him after he shot a policeman, and the car he drives off in belongs to her, so this is not realistic.
Peary argues that part of the problem is that it is hard for an ex-con to go straight: “[Max] may be a habitual criminal, but it’s important for us to realize that if he really did intend to go straight come hell or high water, being an ex-con makes that a near impossibility.” On the contrary, the movie indicates that going straight is indeed possible. Not only did Max manage to get himself a decent job at the National Can Company, but it is also evident that both of his friends, Willy and Jerry, managed to go straight and do all right holding down jobs. In fact, what causes Willy and Jerry to go back into crime with Max is not that society makes things hard for them, but that they are basically no good, that they prefer crime to holding down a job and living an ordinary life.
In addition to the question as to how we are to interpret this movie, either like a bleeding-heart liberal, who sees Max as someone who just needed a chance but was victimized by Frank, or like a law-and-order conservative, who thinks that Frank was just doing his job and that Max caused his own problems by not following the rules, there is the question as to which interpretation was intended by those who made this movie. According to a review published by Variety when the movie came out, those who made this movie at first promoted the former before shifting to the latter: “Viewers are asked initially to believe that M. Emmet Walsh, the assigned parole officer, is a sadistic person who delights in hassling his charges. But given the circumstances, he does not emerge as a heavy. Indeed, Hoffman’s too-easy lapse into his old ways absolves any blame on The System. Hoffman’s character would have defied the parole supervision of a saint.”
Finally, there is the question as to how much the actors starring in these roles influence our judgment. Vincent Canby of The New York Times says: “Max is shrewd, self-absorbed, tough in superficial ways, and doomed. He defines the meaning of recidivism. In real life you wouldn’t trust him to hang up your coat. In Straight Time, in the person of Dustin Hoffman, he’s a fascinating character, made romantic only to the extent that an actor of such stature invests him with importance that is otherwise denied. Max is strictly small-time.”
Peary says, “If Robert De Niro had played [Max], with Martin Scorsese as director, we’d probably be too repulsed by him to feel any of the necessary empathy.” Another way to look at it is to imagine if the movie had been about a parole officer played by Dustin Hoffmann, one of whose parolees was played by M. Emmet Walsh.
In any event, the movie as it stands, with the actors that star in it, is one of those movies that tell you something about yourself, depending on how you react to it. Apparently, I’m just a law-and-order kind of guy.