[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
I saw Straight Time on a double feature, and didn’t know quite what to make of it. Next day, I remembered the second feature vividly and Straight Time almost not at all. Yet I had trouble finding anything specifically wrong with this Chinese dinner of a movie. It’s cleanly made, easy to watch, competently acted—three of the supporting roles are splendidly played: parole officer Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh), suburbanite crime-dabbler Jerry Schue (Harry Dean Stanton), and disturbed ex-con and family man Willy Darin (Gary Busey)—and never less than interesting. Yet in the end it contributes nothing in story or style that seems to add to the currently fashionable dialogue about rehabilitation and recidivism. If there is nothing especially faulty or offensive about the film, neither is there anything outstanding or affecting about it; and it’s that terminal blandness that finally kills Straight Time for me.
It seems due chiefly to Ulu Grosbard’s (and, uncharacteristically, Dustin Hoffman’s) emotional distance that the film fails to excite any passionate concern for its characters or its subject matter. Petty thief and three-time loser Max Dembo (Hoffman) emerges finally as a character with nothing at all to recommend him, and hence no point of contact the viewer can touch with something like sympathy. He’s a lousy lover, a lousy friend (who is responsible for the deaths of two of his buddies by the end of the film), and a hopeless failure as a parolee. Being a thief and doing what a thief does is the only way Dembo achieves meaning in his life (though we never get an inkling why). Worst of all, he’s no good at it; and his obsessive insistence on allowing his robberies to run dangerously overtime—it has more to do with self-destructiveness than with greed—alienates us as much as it does his partners in crime. “We got time,” he keeps telling Schue; and time, finally, is of the essence. On the run at film’s end, he sends his friend and lover Jenny (Theresa Russell) back to Los Angeles; his gift to her is a watch, a memento of the fateful jewelry store robbery which is itself emblematic of how Dembo has botched his “straight time.” He tells Jenny, “I’m going to get caught,” and we know it is an intention, not a prediction. After humiliating his parole officer right out of the movie, Dembo becomes his own parole officer, and ends up sending himself back. But far from any admiration or sympathy, all we end up with is a faint feeling that we’re better off rid of him.
The shortcomings of Short Eyes lie in another direction. At the beginning, the film reminded me of Jonas Mekas’s powerful film of the Living Theatre production of Kenneth Brown’s The Brig. Long takes, never cutting when he can move the camera instead, and keeping a wall of bars prominently between the viewer and the object of interest are techniques that emphatically place the audience in the prison, and director
Robert M. Young has used them well in the first reel or so of his film of Miguel Pinero’s play. As the characters filter into the frame and the story begins to take shape, we encounter a society, ethics, and language so different from our own that it’s often hard to tell just what is going on. At one point, the prisoners hold a hilarious series of cockroach races, and we tend to be grateful for this wittily shot and quick-cut bit of humor, because it provides relief at a moment when it’s badly needed.
But for all its claustrophobic intensity, Short Eyes can’t be called uncompromising. The camera style Young establishes in the first few minutes of the film gradually dissipates, and the power of the film begins to break down, with the imposition of a moral fable on the lives of the prisoners. The introduction into the cell block of a young middle-class WASP (Bruce Davison) who’s being held on suspicion of pedophilia arouses the united resentment of the black, Puerto Rican, and lowlife white prisoners, who demand the abuse and death of the newcomer as a sort of sacrifice, a communal reassurance among the cons that there is someone lower than themselves, someone whom they may judge. In spite of itself, then, Short Eyes becomes a tract.
There is something of Twelve Angry Men in the passionate efforts of Juan (affectingly played by José Perez) to dissuade the prisoners from their abuse of the young man, Clark Davis; and there is something of Lifeboat in the communal killing, the group complicity in ritual judgment that forms the moral center of the film. After the killing, the ward captain scolds the men for what he implies is their responsibility for Davis’s “suicide.” He then delivers the film’s ringer: Davis, it seems, was not identified by his alleged victim in the lineup, and so was to have been dismissed as a suspect of the crime. “Clark Davis was an innocent victim of circumstance,” he says: “Innocent!” But we cannot escape the ambiguity of Juan’s position, for Clark has previously confessed to him—and us—his guilt of pedophilia, even if he was innocent in this specific instance. That ambiguity works against the real horror of the film, the killing. The captain’s declaration of Davis’s innocence tends to imply that had Davis been guilty it would have been less wrong of the prisoners to kill him; and the centrality of Juan—who was first forced to comply in a mistaken judgment of guilt, and now is forced to acknowledge a mistaken judgment of innocence—detracts from the power of the film by abstracting from the hopeless material existence and bizarre racial ethics of the prisoners to the more flexible world of Ideas. The attempt to double the shock of Davis’s death by stressing his innocence in the eyes of the law only spreads it thinner, so that the film is finally hamstrung by its own intentions.
Whether these two films indicate an increasing interest on the part of filmmakers and their audiences in the growing problem of criminal punishment in America remains to be seen. But the real mark has not yet been hit.
© 1978 Robert C. Cumbow
Direction: Ulu Grosbard (begun by Dustin Hoffman, uncredited). Screenplay: Alvin Sargent, Edward Bunker and Jeffrey Boam, after Bunker’s novel No Beast So Fierce. Cinematography: Owen Roizman. Production design: Stephen B. Grimes. Editing: Sam O’Steen, Randy Roberts. Music: David Shire.
The players: Dustin Hoffman, Theresa Russell, Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey, M. Emmet Walsh, Sandy Barron.
Direction: Robert M. Young. Screenplay: Miguel Pinero, after his play. Cinematography: Peter Sova. Editing: Edward Beyer. Music: Curtis Mayfield. Production: Lewis Harris.
The players: Bruce Davison, José Perez, Tito Goya, Nathan George, Don Blakely, Shawn Elliott, Joseph Carberry, Miguel Pinero, Curtis Mayfield, Freddie Fender, Keith Davis.