Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) has been behind bars for six years on a robbery conviction, but now he has been released, though he still has to report to his parole officer Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh) and suffer many restrictions on his movements and what he is allowed to do. After failing to find the halfway house he was meant to attend for the night, he visits Frank and gets hassled by him for not following his orders, but keeps his cool knowing if he wants to go straight he has to do whatever this man tells him to. Yet the whole administration of ex-convicts seems to want to force him into becoming a recidivist...
Straight Time was to be star Hoffman's first ever directorial effort having established his great worth as a leading man in the character actor mould, but it didn't work out that way and after a few days on the set he called in Ulu Grosbard to take over the helm. Grosbard, a successful theatre director, had dabbled in movies before, including one starring Hoffman with the memorable title Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying These Terrible Things About Me? which was an underperformer at the time, but evidently Hoffman had been impressed enough to want to work with him again. This was a far better prospect, as Grosbard showed his skill with actors in many scenes where the characters simply talked to each other.
That did not mean the elements which strayed closer to the crime thriller genre were neglected, as there were a couple of heists late on which demonstrated a solid tension, but it was the personalities that both star and director were more interested in and it showed. Especially in the first half, which detailed the hardship an ex-con trying to sort his life out went through, with Walsh a superb villain who ostensibly is supposed to be helping Max, but ends up determined to catch him out at some wrongdoing which Max is just not taking part in. Every time he shows up in the former cirminal's life it's bad news, and he even marches him back to prison when he thinks he's been drugtaking at one point.
So eventually the inevitable happens, and being treated like a criminal makes up Max's mind to start acting like one once again, and in a memorable scene for anyone who has had to put up with a conniving and bullying authority figure, he gets a humiliating revenge on the parole officer and sets about going back to robbery as a method of making a living. This was based on a novel by prisoner and writer Edward Bunker, whose other cult movie claims to fame included appearing as Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs, and he shows up in one scene too, so there's an undeniable authenticity about the plot and even the incidentals as Bunker spoke of what he knew. Fans of far slicker crime drama would be intrigued to know Michael Mann worked with him on an early draft of the script.
Theresa Russell was the love interest, the office worker at the employment agency who Max gets to chatting up and ultimately romancing, a glimpse of a woman who could have signalled the way back to respectability if society hadn't mistrusted Max so badly, but unfortunately the effect of him staging robberies was to make it look as if Frank, and those like him, had been right all along instead of highlighting a genuine problem. Certainly the main issue ex-cons have is not returning to their old ways, but in this telling it looked incredibly easy to slip back, no matter how devastating the results for all concerned. Still, there were excellent performances to appreciate, with Harry Dean Stanton as Max's partner in crime who is only too pleased to welcome him back into the world of small time crooks, and Gary Busey as his more callow friend whose wife (Kathy Bates in an early role) warns Max away from, another character who suspects he cannot be trusted. Music by David Shire.