Michael Mann worked on the script for Straight Time (based on Eddie Bunker’s novel) before his departure from the project in the late 1970s. A year later Mann would go on to make Jericho Mile, and which would see him port over some of the original ideas from Straight Time expressly the thread of the ex-con/criminal and the metaphysical relationship with time. It seems almost impossible to discuss Mann’s development without acknowledging and appreciating the multitude of connections and early authorial preoccupations that are evident in Straight Time. Eddie Bunker, who also worked on the script (released from prison in 1975), spent time in Folsom State Prison, a direct geographical link to Mann’s Jericho Mile and later crime films, and who was undoubtedly a major influence on Mann’s methodical realist approach to the subject of the ex-con and what makes them tick.
In Straight Time Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman in probably his best role) is a precursor to many of the classical Mann ex-con protagonists who are painted as existential, transient and lonely urban mavericks. Max, released from prison after six years, is out of sync with society and the loss of time is a self-destructive force that bears down on him. There is also resentment, rejection and a deep sense of displacement that finds Max like an alien drifting through the analogous tributaries of Los Angeles. Beneath the cool, charming yet robotic like exterior of Max is a cataclysmic socio-pathic tendency that cannot be repressed no matter how hard he tries to express obedience and compliance; crime is innately natural and instinctive since he doesn’t know anything else. The unbearable system that bears down on Max is distilled into the malicious, creepy and dehumanizing tactics deployed by the parole officer Earl Frank (M. Emmett Walsh).
A major difference is that unlike Mann’s ex-con protagonists who are consummate, regimented professionals and seem to operate on a level that makes them somewhat anonymous and disconnected from everyday society, Max’s behaviour is unpredictable, erratic and desperate. Nonetheless, Max also abides by a strict moral code including an institutional defiance that echoes later Mann protagonists like Frank in Thief and Neil McCauley in Heat. Another thematic link to Heat and specifically Michael Cheritto‘s (Tom Sizemore) adrenalin fuelled pleasures is in the equivalent character of Jerry Schue (Harry Dean Stanton) who is coerced back into crime from his dreary suburban reality with the lure of momentary kicks that are tangible, mortal and depravedly pleasurable. A final link to the Mann universe, and Thief, is when Jenny (Theresa Russell) visits Max in county. The glass, the phone-call, and the void that is apparent, even if the two of them have forged a tenuous, incomplete connection, recalls the moment when Frank visits Okla (Willie Nelson) in prison as a kind of sombre adieu to the ways in which time fractures, erases and prolongs communal bonds.
One could argue the struggle against time and not having enough of it is a perpetual recurring force that many ex-cons are up against in many American crime narratives but Mann would go on to distil, refine and magnify time as harbouring a piercing duality in his work; as something poetically transformative and politically repressive.